Home Authors Posts by Tony Rehagen

Tony Rehagen

Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.

Harriet Robinson

The problem is invisible. The solution is expressed in a symbology that few laypeople can decipher. And despite more than a decade of development, any substantive sign of that solution’s effect on humanity is still, at best, years away. But in terms of impact, it doesn’t get much bigger, clearer, and more immediate than the prospect of a successful HIV vaccine.

Atlanta is at the center of the worldwide war against AIDS, which has killed more than half a million Americans since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported on it thirty years ago. For ten years, microbiologist Harriet Robinson and her team at Smyrna-based GeoVax have been taking advantage of the city’s unique combination of resources—Emory University’s Vaccine Center, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the nearby CDC—to cultivate a vaccine that not only prevents but also combats HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS.

Since Robinson started her AIDS research as a professor at the University of Massachusetts in 1992, attempts at an HIV inoculation have come and gone, with four vaccines going as far as the third and final phase of efficacy testing through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Two of the four attempts failed, and one is still being tested. Robinson’s vaccine is expected to be the fifth to graduate to efficacy trials, and it differs from its predecessors by using a human protein that, along with viral proteins, increases the body’s production of T-cells—white blood cells able to recognize, attack, and, hopefully, kill the virus—as well as antibodies that can block HIV.

In 2009 primates at the Yerkes research facility were vaccinated before being exposed to SIV—Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, the closest known cousin to HIV. A group of rhesus macaque monkeys was injected with the vaccine and then exposed to the virus in three twelve-week trials. The results were staggering. After the first twelve-week period, 70 percent of the subjects remained uninfected. After the second period, that number shot to 80 percent of the same group. Only after Robinson introduced a more potent strain of SIV during the third period did 100 percent of the primates become infected.

As Robinson and her team enter the third phase of trials, the biggest hurdle may be funding the research and production of the vaccine—the third trial alone is projected to cost $80 million. However, Robinson says a patient with HIV/AIDS will spend $500,000 in lifetime medical costs. With more than a million Americans living with HIV—and almost 50,000 newly infected every year—the math in support of research adds up.

While the worldwide implications of a successful vaccine are obvious, the local impact can’t be ignored. After all, the AIDS epidemic is growing faster in the Southeast than in any other region in the country.

If successful, the vaccine will bring Atlanta high-profile attention and draw researchers to the city. That’s good news to Robinson, but her focus remains on the fight against the virus. The current formula is geared toward the clade B strain of HIV, which is prevalent in the United States. Meanwhile GeoVax researchers are starting to apply what they’ve learned to treat clade C, the strain that has infected more than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. “A vaccine is possible,” she says, knocking on her mahogany conference table. “We’re still years away. But I think we’re going to have one before people think we are.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

Daddy Blues

I don’t read manuals. But when my wife was pregnant last year with our first child, she studied every so-you’re-expecting book she could find. I scanned the sections she assigned, sat through birthing classes, watched the self-help VHS on swaddling and shushing, and viewed a tutorial on infant care she pulled off Netflix—but mostly just to show solidarity with the woman who, five months pregnant, followed my job from our home in Indianapolis to Atlanta last August. I smiled and nodded at the unsolicited advice from my parent friends. This is between my child and me, I thought. I talked to Abilene, the girl we had named years before she was conceived, in my wife’s belly like the intelligent being I knew she was. We joked about how her grandparents would never let her feet touch the floor. She was a baseball fan, of course, and I dutifully reported the daily Cardinals scores. When our team came from behind to even a playoff series against the Phillies, I felt a nudge from the womb that could only be interpreted as a celebratory fist bump. And at night, I’d sing her to sleep, usually Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” We had a bond, an understanding. I figured that when the moment came, my little friend would provide me with all the revelation I’d need.

That moment was not in the hospital room while listening to Abi’s heartbeat churning through the monitor, as I tried in vain to write my unborn child a letter of wisdom and profundity. It was not in the operating room minutes later when an actual baby was pulled from an incision in my wife’s abdomen, me looking on as it was presented to its mother, who was weeping with a joy I had not seen in the decade I had known her. (The nurse reminded me to snap a photo with my iPhone.) Nor did the revelation come when I held her for the first time, screaming and writhing in my arms, piercing blue eyes boring into me like I was a stranger, or worse, a fraud who was never going to have the answers she was looking for. Over the first few sleepless nights at home, no amount of rocking or singing could soothe her. I croaked “Hallelujah,” but she did not respond. My wife urged me to use my training, the swaddle and the shush to simulate the womb, but I was indignant. I didn’t want to have to trick my child into submission. I wanted her to know me, to recognize my voice, to know that as long as she heard that voice, everything was going to be okay. During one all-nighter that I was supposed to man alone, I flipped on the bedroom lights, marched toward my waking wife, held the crying baby at arm’s length like a pot of scalding water, and declared, “I’m through with her.” I swear I just meant for the night.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love her. Of course I did. That was the problem. I wanted more than anything to be father of the century. But she didn’t need me to be a father. She needed me to be a caretaker, someone to change her diapers. I needed validation or at least recognition of the effort. I was working my ass off and seeing zero results. A puppy almost hyperventilates with glee when she sees you go to the dog food bag—she knows she’s going to get fed. Meanwhile the sound of the fridge door, the beep of the bottle warmer, the sight of me screwing on the nipple right in front of her meant nothing to Abi. She didn’t relent until the milk touched her tongue. “She’s a baby,” my wife would say in her measured, motherly tone, making me feel that much worse for comparing my child to a dog while simultaneously expecting her to be a logical, thinking semiadult.

That’s the other thing: While I was failing as a father, my wife had found her calling in motherhood. She worried about every little cough and sniffle, but she was quick to act, self-assured and calm in crisis, with the patience and easy persistence of a river carving out a canyon. I was in awe of her. And Abi was by all reasonable measures a good baby. She was inconsolable when hungry (which seemed like always), but she was strong and healthy, not at all colicky. She slept, if only for a couple of hours at a time, and she adapted well to strange people and surroundings. I was the only one in the family not adjusting to the new situation.

My company allows one week of paid paternity leave. Most of the dads I talked to get a day, maybe two, if anything. In fact, only 8 percent of American companies offer mothers paid leave. The average mother without paid leave takes six and a half weeks.

I tacked on a week of vacation, but I’m not sure a month would have been enough. I returned to the office I hadn’t even unpacked yet, weighted down with new boxes of mental clutter. Running on maybe four scattered hours of sleep, I could barely keep my head off the desk, much less summon any creativity. Frustration gave way to anger, then desperation. More than once, I shut my door, sat down on the floor, and let the tears come. When I came home, it was time to spell my wife, who’d been with Abi all day; the evenings and early mornings I had always dedicated to catch-up work were now loud with baby din. And when I had a rough day, when I came up empty at idea meetings, when the I-85 gridlock was too much, when an innocent comment from my editor sent me into a full-blown crisis of confidence, there was really no one to turn to. My best friend, my confidant of nine years, was now focused on her new occupation, her new identity. Meanwhile, I was quietly sucking at two new jobs.

I’m not big into going to the doctor. It took most of the humility I had to turn to the Google bar and type in “postpartum depression” and “men.” I was surprised to learn that as many as one in every four new dads suffers from some form of the doldrums. That’s 2,700 new fathers each day, nationwide. I found out that after childbirth, a man’s testosterone levels ebb while his estrogen surges—conceivably to make him a more faithful and nurturing parent; no one’s sure. The hormonal shift leaves us just as susceptible to mood swings as Mom. And it’s thought that a major trigger for depression is the lack of response from the child. On one site I took a self-assessment—ten open-ended statements like: “In the past week, I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong . . .” or “In the past week, I have felt sad or miserable . . .,” followed by choices ranging from “No, not at all” to “Most of the time.” Each answer was given a numeric value. A total score of five to eight meant you suffered merely from anxiety. If your number was nine or higher, it “was likely that you had depression.” My scrap of paper tallied to fifteen.

For the first time in my life, I considered seeing a therapist. But before I dialed that number, I got some key advice from a couple of friends who had each had babies in the past two years. I was relieved to hear that both friends related to the lack of response during those first few weeks, with one going so far as to jokingly refer to the bundle as “nothing more than a little digestive system.” They both talked about the confusion and guilt, and they reminded me that the baby could sense and reflect my unease and tension, compounding the problem. But they advised patience: “Once you get to three months,” one of them said, “you’ll see it.”

They were right. Slowly my body got used to the lack of sleep. With more energy, I took a Zen approach to the late-night crying fits, closing my eyes, breathing through my nose, and swaying and singing as much to calm myself as the child. And she responded. Gradually my embrace came to mean safety and comfort. She began to grab my finger and put it in her mouth to soothe her aching gums. I even occasionally got a smile when I walked in the door from work. She still screamed bloody murder until the bottle hit her lips. But the first time I made her giggle, I warbled and jumped around like a loon, slapping myself red to coax another.

In March I drove the family to Des Moines, where Abi and my wife were going to spend the week with my in-laws while I flew back to work. We broke the trip into two eight-hour legs through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Abi, awake and alert, handled the flat, interminable drive with far less frustration than her father.

The week alone was going to give me a chance to refocus on work and catch up with friends. I knew I’d miss my girls. I had no idea how much. I’ll admit I enjoyed that first full night’s sleep. But as the days wore on, the silence in the apartment became unbearable. By week’s end it took a couple of glasses of bourbon and the sound of her crib-side wave machine crackling through the baby monitor to put me out.

When my Friday night flight finally landed in Des Moines, I raced into my in-laws’ house, threw my bag to the floor, and went straight for the rocker. Abi was squirming, crying. My wife said she had been fussy all day; no bottle or song or funny face from Auntie or Grandma could still her. I picked her up and kissed her once on the forehead, once on the cheek. I could not put her down. Eventually I took her back into the bedroom and by the faint glow of a night-light, I held her to me, began to sway back and forth while softly repeating Cohen’s refrain. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Abi quieted. The four-month-old looked up at me and sniffled, then buried her face in my chest. My hand on her back, I could feel her heave and sob as she slowly drifted to sleep. I rocked and sang until all I could feel was her heartbeat. 

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him

All Hail Terminal West

After three years of drawing ravers to grind in the gallery spaces of the King Plow Arts Center, Robert Shaw and Alan Sher have set up the permanent venue Terminal West in Studio C of the refurbished farm-equipment foundry. With high-grade sound and light systems built around a twenty-by-thirty-three-foot stage, wide concrete floors, three bars loaded with twenty-nine different canned craft beers, and a back patio facing the railroad tracks, the unce-unce dance party will be beating strong in Westside. But starting this summer, Shaw and Sher say music lovers of all ages and metronomic temperaments will find a reason to stop in. “The first few months have been electronic music; that was our network,” says Shaw. “But we’ve got reggae and bluegrass acts coming to use this amazing performance space. The goal is to diversify the audience.”

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him

Eddie’s Attic Turns Twenty

UPDATE: On May 14, Eddie Owen announced that he had been fired from Eddie’s Attic. Read Rich Eldredge’s blog post about Owen’s departure, Owen’s response, and Alex Cooley’s take on the situation.

Shut up and listen.

You can drink your beer and scrape the last bits of mac and cheese from the bottom of the bowl. You can even leave your cell phone on to illuminate the menu—just be sure the ringer is switched to silent. If you don’t have the patience to read the entire seventy-five-word mission statement hanging on the stage backdrop, just focus on the first two sentences: Eddie’s Attic is a music venue concentrating on the performing and touring singer-songwriter and acoustic musician. We encourage a listening atmosphere. “We need you to eat and drink as much as possible,” announces the Attic’s namesake, fifty-six-year-old Eddie Owen, before the opening act. “But please, hush up.”

You can’t smoke, either. Owen, a longtime pipe-smoker himself, banned the practice when he first opened the Attic in 1992. Just one less distraction.

If you, the paying customer, are feeling put upon, you’re probably not alone. The Americana band you paid to see tonight, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, left their electric instruments on the truck. Instead they lugged a half dozen acoustic guitars and a man-sized stand-up bass along with the drums to the second floor and have crammed their five-piece unit onto the tiny corner stage. They stripped down their songs so as not to overwhelm the confines with distorted guitar, booming bass, or crashing cymbal. The band has played 800-seat theaters, but tonight will put on two shows to two capacity audiences of around 180 people in this room.

So why are we here? Why do we pay to be treated like children in church? Why do established artists agree to take the Decatur detour on their tour of theaters and arenas? And why does management discourage patrons from buying another round in the name of quiet, a business model that has kept this venue teetering for twenty years?

John Mayer, who started out at the Attic fourteen years ago and has since moved 20 million albums and sold out Madison Square Garden four times, explains why he comes back to the Attic for surprise shows: “When a room is making noise—let’s say on a scale of one to ten, it’s a four—you lose all the music you can make from one to four,” he says. “You lose so much touch and nuance. There’s so much beautiful music that happens between a pin dropping and the first bit of chatter. That’s where some of the best music in the world came from, and that’s why Eddie’s has that magic.”

Owen, a failed musician and lover of whiskey and baseball, lives for that ethereal space, the space between pin-drop and chatter, and his devotion has attracted like-minded acts such as Mayer, Shawn Mullins, Sugarland, and the Civil Wars, who launched their careers from this stage. It has also provided thousands of moments between listeners and artists you’ve never heard of, songwriters selected by Owen himself. Attic regulars show up without even knowing who’s on the calendar. “It’s like having someone picking your Netflix queue for you,” says Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, who played here on the Attic’s second night, twenty years ago. Owen’s ear for talent and his dedication to the idea of a listening room have enabled the Attic to celebrate two decades of national renown in Decatur this month, while music venues around the country sit shuttered and silent.

But despite the Attic’s artistic success, the struggling business has become more of a distraction for its founder. Twenty years on, Owen’s search for the perfect place to hear live music has taken him miles away from his Attic.

“My respect for songwriters is built out of a failure to be able to do it myself,” says Owen, who grew up singing in the church choir and around his grandma’s upright Baldwin piano. He fell in love with the Beatles and the way John Lennon crafted poetic lyrics with complementary chords. But then he picked up the guitar in high school and started writing his own songs, compositions he never even titled. “I sucked,” he says. “They weren’t good enough for names.”

In 1981 Owen was twenty-six, tending bar at the Trackside Tavern, a rowdy brick and wood-paneled joint along the railroad less than half a mile from Decatur Square. Back then the music scene was built around bands like R.E.M., which was drawing national attention to Athens. The only places to see live music in Atlanta were loud bars, clubs like Hedgens in Buckhead, Rumors in Decatur, 688 on Spring Street, or the Moonshadow Saloon on Piedmont Road, and the singer-songwriters were lost in the ruckus. To Owen acoustic music was pure and clean; he could hear every note and savor every word. “But there was no place to just sit and listen,” he says. “It drove me crazy.” Owen persuaded the Trackside owners to let him book acoustic acts in the middle of the week.

But Trackside was like any other bar, with TVs, dartboards, and high-backed booths. It was hard to see where the singer and his beat-up Taylor guitar fit in. “It was a drinking bar,” says Matthew Kahler, who played for Owen at Trackside. “It was pretty interesting that he wanted to put something that delicate in that setting. Where a drunk could fall off a barstool and wreck the entire thing. It wasn’t perfect. But we were there because the guy behind the bar was crazy about music.”

“I was trying to nurture songwriters at a point where most folks were trying to nurture their next beer or joint,” says Owen, who sometimes had to personally quiet the audience, shushing people while serving drinks from behind the bar. “But once the word and the vibe spread, it sort of took care of itself.” Trackside became home for not only local folk luminaries like Caroline Aiken and Kodac Harrison, but also budding singer-songwriters like Shawn Mullins, Emily Saliers, and Amy Ray, whom Owen had first spotted playing in a Decatur pizza parlor before she joined Saliers to form the Indigo Girls. In a business where it’s almost impossible for a young artist to be heard, Owen listened. In the late 1980s, an underage Kristian Bush sneaked into Trackside and did his Emory homework at the bar, just to be close to the music. One night, Bush says, Owen handed him a guitar and a Budweiser and asked to see what the young man could do—the bartender recognized potential. “I sucked pretty bad for years,” says Bush. “But he let me play. He protected us. He allowed us to write what we wanted to write.”

But at Trackside, acoustic music was still the sideshow. One night in the spring of 1992, Owen took Kahler and Bush to Conversations, a bar at 515 North McDonough Street where Owen worked a second job, and led them to an empty upstairs storage room with hardwood floors, a high ceiling, and a giant palisade window that looked out on downtown Decatur. Here, Owen told them, he was going to lease the space and build a place where they could play, and people would be quiet and listen.

“When he called me with the idea, I said, ‘How can I help?’” says Saliers. Fresh off the success of the Indigo Girls’ eponymous major label debut, she and bandmate Amy Ray were two of the Attic’s initial investors (some of whom, Owen says, he is still paying back). Saliers and Ray also donated a pair of speakers for the sound system. Mullins, Bush, and Harrison helped paint the walls. Meanwhile Owen, who still lived alone in a Decatur apartment, threw everything into the project—his savings and his passion. At the time, he didn’t really know what a mission statement was, but he wanted to reiterate to everyone what the music room was about. He composed the seventy-five-word message and a coworker stenciled it onto a folded-over king-sized bedsheet.

The sheet was hung onstage, with a half dozen plastic Budweiser banners that simply read Shhhh on the walls. And on May 7, 1992, Eddie’s Attic opened its doors. There was no bar in the listening room, the drinks being dispensed solely from the patio. There were only stools, chairs, and tables packed with eager fans focused on the stage. “It’s just you and your guitar,” says Bush, whose band Billy Pilgrim was one of the first acts booked. “And at the end of the day, it’s all about your songs.”

The Lovely Drifters are setting up. With their guitar and cello, Amy Andrews and Alex Sia, who relocated from Baltimore a year and a half ago to Atlanta’s more nurturing music scene, are Owen’s fill-in for a last-minute cancellation. Owen is a sucker for the cello, which, he says, is the closest instrument to the human voice.

Standing in front of the sound booth in the back of the room with a coffee cup of bourbon, Owen surveys the forty or so people scattered throughout the room—not a bad draw for a Wednesday night and just ten days’ notice. The lights go down and Attic chatter yields to simple strings. But as Andrews’s soprano washes over the room, Owen winces, as if his whiskey has been replaced with day-old coffee. After a few bars, he turns and leaves through the swinging kitchen door and strides back to the patio bar. Something is wrong with the sound in the room. “I can’t tell you exactly what it is,” he says. “And I love this song and I love her voice, but I just couldn’t stand it in there.”

He joins three patrons sitting at the bar, watching the live feed through the monitor. The man seated next to Owen is an aging musician, evident by the receding line of his long, dishwater-blond coif, which seems to be gradually sliding off the back of his head.

“I’ve been in Decatur, playing Eddie’s Attic with various bands for fifteen years,” he announces. “I remember Jennifer Nettles before she talked with a Southern accent. John Mayer took money at the door for my band. He was a tool back then, too, acting like he was too good for that . . . which, I guess he was.”

But the man only gets Owen to engage when he brings up the Red Clay Theatre, Owen’s latest project, a 14,000-square-foot theater in downtown Duluth that Owen believes could match—and even surpass—the Attic, in terms of a pure “listening environment.”

“I’ve heard it sounds awesome,” says the man. “Like Symphony Hall.”

Owen pats the man’s back. “And I didn’t pay him to say that,” he says.

“And I’m not going to ask him to book my band here in a second,” says the man with a wink.

The chuckles subside, and the musician returns to the Lovely Drifters on the monitor hanging above the bar. Owen turns away and just above a whisper says, “This is a very important part of my job. Because I don’t know this guy, but I have to pretend that I do.”

In the weeks and months after the Attic’s grand opening, cafe tables and chairs were set out, and a standing bar was built in the middle of the room. Later came oversized carpeted stairs for people to climb and sit on like the studio audience of an old afternoon TV kids show. The official seating capacity has always been about 150, but they often cram in an extra twenty or thirty.

In the early days, there were pool tables in the back room. One night in the mid-1990s, Saliers was shooting pool with Owen and singers Uncle Mark Reynolds and Andrew Hyra, when local songwriter Pierce Pettis came bounding up the steps and threw his guitar case on the felt in the middle of the game: You have got to hear this. Pettis broke out a driving ballad called “You Move Me,” which was eventually recorded by Garth Brooks.

Stories like this drew young musicians to Eddie’s. “You don’t know who is in the back of the room,” says Bush. “This industry is pretty impossible. At Eddie’s, it seems like it is possible.” Billy Pilgrim got picked up by Atlantic Records—they signed their contract at the Attic. Even when major label A&R guys weren’t at the bar, Eddie’s was a place where connections were made. It was there that Bush met a singer named Jennifer Nettles, who fronted folk-rock act Soul Miner’s Daughter and the Jennifer Nettles Band before joining Bush in the country megagroup Sugarland.

But often, the best connection a young act could make was with Owen. In 1994 he started the Songwriter’s Open Mic Monday, a weekly contest where artists could perform two original songs for one judge: Owen. The winners were invited back for the biannual shoot-out, a single-elimination tournament for $1,000 toward recording an album. Ten to twenty hopefuls were signing up every Monday. By the mid-1990s, Owen was fielding twenty to thirty CDs—many containing full-length albums—each week. Owen enlisted help from Bush and Mullins and other trusted ears to pare down the stack, but the owner always had the final say. He looked for energy and chemistry, but in the end only one thing mattered. “They all work their asses off, and they’re all talented,” he says. “But if you don’t have the songs, you can’t get there.”

And once he found a songwriter he liked, there was little he wouldn’t do to help—even if it meant grooming him to outgrow the Attic. Bush remembers Owen standing at the bar, listing the other clubs Bush should be calling. In the late 1990s, Owen met a twenty-year-old guitar player who had just moved down from Boston. John Mayer’s first gig ever was a Monday night open mic. He won. “I remember asking Eddie how to get booked there for a show of my own,” says Mayer. “He told me to send him a demo packet, which was a folder you’d mail with a photo, a CD, and a bio—he had to explain that to me.” Owen gave Mayer a regular gig and hired him as a doorman for $40 a night, and whenever there was a cancellation or a twenty-minute opening, Mayer was Owen’s go-to guitar. Mayer went on to play South by Southwest in Austin and was later picked up by Columbia Records, recording 2001’s “Room for Squares,” which won a Grammy and sold 4 million copies. Mayer gave Owen framed versions of the platinum records, which now hang above the Attic door.

“For a little bitty shithole, we book pretty far out,” says Owen, phone to ear, sitting by the Attic window in the waning March daylight. The spectacles that usually dangle on a lanyard around his neck are balanced on the tip of his nose, magnifying his foggy blue eyes. On the bar is a calendar of May, boxes marred with names and numbers. But the voice on the other end doesn’t seem to understand. “Any date between now and June is going to be booked,” says Owen.

The voice belongs to a network producer from Los Angeles, calling to schedule a film session with Jennifer Nettles for an upcoming TV special. “We don’t have a greenroom,” Owen continues. “And we’re on the second story with no elevator.” Pause. “A lot of the time, the TV grips say, ‘Oh, shit!’” Pause. “Well, I sold it to Jennifer and her husband, so she knows the space better than I do,” he says, and then he grins with an overbite. “Now I just work here.”

In 2002, after ten years of being the first one in and last one out six days a week, Owen was torn. His family was growing—a brand-new baby girl to join two boys, five and six—and he felt like he was missing their lives. For years he had thought about selling. So when his good friends Nettles and her husband, aspiring nightclub owner Todd Van Sickle, called to ask Owen’s advice on getting into the business, Owen saw a way out. “Emotions were very mixed,” he says. “I was losing a part of me. But my family is the most important thing.” And he was leaving the Attic in trusted hands. In the spring of 2002, Owen sold the place and found a regular job as an events coordinator at the Ritz-Carlton in Morgan County, where he moved his family. Over the next three years, he hardly set foot in the Attic.

Meanwhile Van Sickle made the mistake of trying to run the Attic as a viable business. While Owen had given 98 percent of the door to the artist, keeping only enough to pay the soundman and doorman, Van Sickle cut it to 80 percent, which he saw as closer to par with the industry (a split the Attic still applies). He hired Shalom Aberle, a soundboard maestro who had worked clubs in California and has become an Attic institution known for recording live stereo mixes that sound studio-made. Van Sickle also informed staff that they should no longer silence people. He took down the Shhhh banners and the mission statement. He thought he was liberating the customer. But some regulars and artists became resentful. “It was still a good place,” says Kahler. “But it was too loud for me.”

In May 2005, Van Sickle sold the Attic to Bob Ephlin, a former exec with Wolf Camera. One of Ephlin’s first moves was to ask Owen to return to run the bar and booking. “In a brief fit of insanity,” Owen says, he accepted. But he made sure he had a set schedule and made it a point to eat breakfast with his kids every morning at 6.

The mission statement returned to the stage. “It just seemed like the place was reconnected with its legacy,” says Aberle, who was working with Owen for the first time. “The Indigo Girls and John Mayer magically reappeared. Musicians and fans so wanted to reach out, hug him, look him in the eye and tell him how happy they were and what he meant to them.” Over the next four years, attendance doubled. The Attic expanded its email database to more than 9,000 addresses. In 2008 Georgia Public Broadcasting launched “Eddie’s Attic Presents,” a weekly radio show featuring Attic performances interwoven with Owen spinning the stories behind the artists and songs from a script he wrote himself. Ephlin even recorded an “Austin City Limits”–style TV pilot to shop to the networks. Owen interviewed the acts.

Magic still happened at the Attic. In the age of iTunes, artists submitted a couple of songs instead of albums, enabling Owen to handle the talent search alone on his seventy-minute commute from Morgan County, listening to CDs, and eventually MP3s and links through his iPhone. Today he receives more than 500 emails a day.

In 2009 Owen booked a young Nashville songwriter named John Paul White to open a Friday night show. At the last minute, White wanted to bring along a new singer, Joy Williams, whom he had just met. Owen agreed. It was their second show together. But during sound check, Owen says, “every head turned and every jaw hit the floor.” The Civil Wars recorded their nine-song Attic set and made it available for free on the Internet—an album on which you can hear silverware clanging in the background and which was eventually downloaded by more than 100,000 people. The duo has since won two Grammys.

To fans and artists, it was as if the founder had never left. But from behind the bar, it was clear that the Attic was no longer Eddie’s. Owen felt pressure to book acts that would bring in more customers. “When it was my money, I didn’t give a rat’s ass if three people came, as long as I was one of those three,” he says. “I had to reshift that thinking,” taking into account what will sell as opposed to just booking acts he liked.

Shut up and listen.

You can drink your beer at the Red Clay Theatre, but there is no long-winded mission statement on the wall, no signs shhhh-ing you. In fact, aside from a gentle reminder to silence your phone, Owen’s preshow spiel from the Red Clay stage is devoid of lecture. “I don’t have to,” he says. “Here, when the lights go down, the people know to hush up. This is a theater.” The only interruption is the horn of a nearby freight train that rumbles by thirty-five times a day.

Last fall officials from Duluth approached Owen about starting a concert series in a downtown church that the city had bought and spent $800,000 converting into a home for a performance theater company. The theater company went under in 2008, and the building, with its stage, seats, and industrial-grade sound system, had sat vacant and unused ever since. “This building has the capability of being the best listening house anywhere,” says Duluth Economic Development Manager Chris McGahee. “And if it is associated with Eddie Owen, you know it doesn’t suck. Especially now, when iPods and iPads enable anyone to make music, Eddie is the filter. These days, his talent is even more critical.”

Owen was smitten. Here was a building tailored for music. With 257 seats, it was bigger than the Attic, but still small enough to be intimate. And since the note had been paid for by the city, the private-public partnership made the bottom line work, theoretically. The city would provide the building in exchange for 40 percent of the proceeds. Owen would take care of operating costs. Owen quietly left the Attic in October 2011 to pursue the Duluth concert series, “Eddie Owen Presents,” full time. But he quickly ran short of capital. Meanwhile, Ephlin announced he was selling the Attic to legendary concert promoter Alex Cooley and his partner, Dave Mattingly. They just needed someone to run the place. “I agreed to help them, if they helped me,” Owen says. After a two-month hiatus, Owen was back at the Attic—but with Cooley’s and Mattingly’s investment, “Eddie Owen Presents” was now a reality.

You still can’t smoke at the Red Clay Theatre—law of Duluth, not that it stops Owen. The billiard pipe hanging from his lips leaves a locomotive trail of sweet tobacco smoke throughout the Red Clay corridors, down the stairwell, and into the artists’ dressing room, where Owen is laying out the hummus, Triscuits, and trail mix that he fetched from a nearby Publix for Shawn Mullins, tonight’s headliner. That’s right, there’s a dressing room. Two, actually—complete with light-lined mirrors. Down the hall, there’s a greenroom, a kitchen, and two other empty rooms. That’s just the basement. Upstairs the stage alone is as big as half the entire Attic.

Tonight will be the fourteenth show in five months, but the goal is to fill the theater’s calendar as full as the Attic’s. Then Owen can set his sights on the other half of his Red Clay dream: using the two vacant basement rooms as classrooms for a music and songwriting school, where artists can teach children the craft. “The school is bigger than Eddie Owen,” says Owen. “So much of the Attic is all about Eddie, my personality, my relationships with agents and artists . . . there’s definitely a different feel to the Attic when Eddie’s not there. And that’s not a good thing. I wish I had known that I would need more than Budweisers and hamburgers and that I’d need to monetize what we were doing there. I wish I could be certain that Eddie’s will keep doing that after I’m gone.” The Red Clay offers Owen a new beginning.

The doors open at 6:50 p.m. Owen slides on a gray blazer over his navy Nike mock-turtleneck and rushes out to shake hands with every person who walks through the glass doors. He asks each one of them where they are from. He wants to get an unofficial tally of how many people are Attic folks from intown and how many are from outside the Perimeter. In order for the Red Clay Theatre to work, he says, he needs to show that there are two audiences. As the auditorium fills, the theater’s fifth sellout, Owen’s estimate is about 80 percent OTPers.

Once Mullins is onstage, Owen continues his ambassadorship by giving a tour of the theater to Mullins’s entourage. Even when the ambience is broken by the train horn running within a hundred feet of the building, rattling the floor, Owen just smiles. It reminds him of his days at Trackside. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave the Attic,” he later says. “But there is an energy and a feeling when I’m in this place that I haven’t felt in a long time.”

The next day, Owen is back at the Attic for a Shawn Mullins double feature—Owen tries to get a lot of Attic artists to play in Duluth while they’re in town. But of course, Mullins is an old friend. The shows are to celebrate the singer’s forty-fourth birthday.

The Attic is packed—both shows sold out—and Owen wends his way to the stage. His face is sunburnt, his mouth dry from six packs of sunflower seeds, having come straight from watching his sons play a baseball doubleheader. “When I first met Shawn,” he tells the crowd, “I was a bartender at Trackside Tavern. Shawn wasn’t of drinking age—he was fifteen. But even then, he was a talented, talented singer and songwriter . . . ”

Owen finishes the quick bio. And then: “For those of you who haven’t been here before, we do something a little weird for a bar. Now thank God for Budweiser and hamburgers and we want you to partake heavily. But please, hush up. Just shhhh!”

The room of regulars answers with enthusiastic applause.

As Mullins starts his show, Owen slips back to his post in front of the sound booth. The set kicks into gear, and Owen gradually gives in to the music—first a head bob, then the long body begins to sway, eyes close, fingers snap, and eventually he sings along, adding harmonies in a high Irish tenor. Right now, he’s not dreaming about Duluth, or fretting about the Attic’s future. He isn’t thinking about anything at all. He is caught up in the moment, lost in the song.

Braves GM Frank Wren Speaks Plainly

The annual renewal of spring may not be enough to erase the bitterness of 2011—especially since Atlanta’s reaction during the winter hot stove season seemed as cold as Jason Heyward’s bat. But general manager Frank Wren explains what happened last September, why he’s not worried about 2012, and why fans need to forget any Hollywood dreams of a quick fix.

It’s been a slow winter for you guys. Do you feel you’ve done enough to address what went wrong last season? After a difficult September like we had, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction to make wholesale changes to signal that we’re not going to put up with this anymore. But the more we talked internally over the winter—coaches, scouts, manager, players—we all had the same feeling: We had a really bad September, but that’s not indicative of the team we have. If you look back to August 24, we had the third most wins in all of baseball and a commanding lead in the wild card. We had a tough month after that.

What happened? There were a variety of reasons. I think the four days off for the hurricane in New York impacted us. I think we lost our edge. That’s just a gut feeling I have.

A lot of fans were calling for [manager] Fredi Gonzalez’s job. I think Fredi did a really good job last year. He put us in a great position. And I watched up close and personal all the different strategies he used to try and break this team out of that slump. The team just didn’t respond.

What were some of the things he tried? Adjusting the lineup. Adjusting their work schedule. He tried positive reinforcement. He tried getting a little tougher. But it started downhill and we couldn’t stop it.

So how is the same team going to do better? We welcome Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson back to the rotation after missing the second half of last year. We have a dominant bullpen, and some of our young pitchers got some invaluable experience while Jurrjens and Hanson were down.

Is there a concern that you have too much pitching and not enough depth in the field? We need some players to bounce back. Dan Uggla is going to be more settled. Martin Prado, who was our MVP in 2010, was lost to a staph infection in June and never quite bounced back. Brian McCann pulled his oblique muscle in August, and when he came back, he couldn’t find his timing or his groove. If Jason Heyward makes the adjustments he appears to have made this off-season, that’ll be another big add for our offense. That makes us a different, more consistent team, and that was our overall problem last year: a lack of consistency offensively.

And if some players don’t bounce back the way we expect, we’re going to need to make some adjustments. If we had gone out this winter and made a big deal of acquiring players—exhausting our resources, both financially and in terms of talent—we very well might have acquired the wrong need. Our powder is still dry. We haven’t gone out and used our resources yet.

Then you can just pick up the phone like Brad Pitt in “Moneyball.” The movie was entertaining. But there are a few things that I need to debunk from the top: First thing, there is no such thing as a five-minute deal. You don’t pick up a phone and call another general manager and say, “Here is the deal we’re going to do.” There’s a lot of research and strategy that goes into the delivery [of the offer], and the phone calls take place over the course of a few days or months.

There are also rules against walking through the opposing clubs’ cubicles and talking to employees—it’s called tampering.

And, by the way, there is no major league clubhouse that has a Coke machine where you have to put money in.


Frank Wren; courtesy of the Atlanta Braves

Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him

Cindy Pinion Plays Hostess of North Georgia Bluegrass

The white van pulls onto Burnt Mill Road, a pine-strewn lane winding through the Chattanooga Valley town of Flintstone, five miles south of the Tennessee border. It’s 5 p.m. A beat-up light box reading Mike’s Music points to a white one-story whose basement juts out from the hillside. Across the road squats a sharecropper’s shanty, its tilted mailbox slapped with a sticker: Forever Bluegrass beside the silhouette of a man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle. An identical sticker is plastered to the van’s bumper, next to Minnesota plates.

The van crunches into the shanty’s gravel drive, and four travelers climb down. Inside, Cindy Pinion bounces in her boots to some unheard tune, trying to stay on top of the mounting pile of dirty dishes while the cornbread rises. On the table, a feast worth the thousand-mile trip from Minneapolis: turnip greens, a twelve-pound roast, and blueberry crunch for dessert. Last night Monroe Crossing played Elberton, Georgia, and tomorrow they’ll gig in Chattanooga. But tonight the musicians will take respite in the fabled Pinion hospitality, where for more than thirty years bluegrass musicians have found a home-cooked meal and a much-needed break from the road.

Cindy’s older sister, Inez, owns the white house and music store across the street. Cindy lives here, in the shanty, where she was born fifty-one years ago. The home is cluttered with books, guitar cases, a dusty piano, and picture frames occupying nearly every inch of surface and wall space. The visitors focus on several photos of a gaunt man, peacock feather in his hat, leaning on a bass fiddle—Thomas “Boxcar” Pinion, Cindy’s father.

Boxcar, who got the nickname as a high-school running back, was a welder by trade. But on weekends he frequented dance halls and bars, lugging along his pawn-shop bass (“Ole Yellar”), his wife, and three daughters. His band, Tom and Newell and the Grasscutters, picked out mountain music at concerts, festivals, and square dances. Anyone who plucked a string in these parts came to know Boxcar, his girls, and his wife, Frances, who hosted and fed pickers passing through. And when anyone needed help, he was standing by with a set list for a benefit. So when Boxcar was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, his friends held a concert, a tradition that the Pinions have continued every year since his death in 1990. The 22nd Boxcar Pinion Memorial Bluegrass Festival will be held in Chattanooga this May to support the American Cancer Society.

Through her father and the festival, Cindy has come to know musicians throughout the world. And whether it’s a national act like Bobby Osborne or a smaller band just passing through, Cindy is eager to promote their show or even find them a gig. At the very least, she fills their bellies. She doesn’t get a dime. All she asks is that they take a bumper sticker. 

As night sets in, the Minnesotans unload their instruments and trek across the road. The music store is bursting with bric-a-brac: faded playbills, photos, and antique guitars. Uprooted church pews line the perimeter of the open floor. There the Minnesotans set up—a bass, guitar, banjo, and fiddle—and play for the neighbors who’ve started to arrive. As the locals spot the tunes, they unpack their own instruments and join in. The circle grows. The music swells. Cindy herself doesn’t play a lick, but she dances and makes sure everyone has a seat, a beer, and a bun for the hot dogs she’s boiled.

Night slips by and dozens more come down from the mountains: a veterinarian, a lawyer, a business exec. Ages thirty to sixty. Some play, others listen. Wednesday Night Pickin’ has been a weekly tradition in these parts for twenty years. A pair of the Minnesotans put down their instruments and mingle with the crowd. To someone just walking in the door, it would be impossible to spot the outsiders. 

Photograph by Jamey Guy

Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him

The Last Trawlers

Michael Boone can find the sea with his eyes closed. He peers into the black of 3 a.m. from the helm of the Little Man, hands on the pegs at ten and two, guiding the seventy-five-foot fiberglass trawler slowly down the narrow Darien River toward the Atlantic. The only light is a half moon and an electronic depth finder that throws the young captain’s reflection onto the pilothouse window. Michael barely looks at the instrument. He knows by heart every rock, every coil and curve of the grassy shore, every jut in the shallows and hunk of debris that lurks just beneath the calm, dark surface. He has run these eleven winding miles, in blinding rain and fog, since he was twelve and had to stand on a milk crate his daddy bolted to the floor so he could see over the wheel.

Michael Boone, captain of the Little Man; photograph by Jamey Guy

Michael’s feel for these waters reaches beyond his own experience. He inherited this path from his father, who learned it from his father, who learned it from his. Four generations of Boones, one of several families puttering out from Darien, a small town sixty miles down the coast from Savannah, to scour the ocean floor for shrimp. And other than a few tweaks in navigational technology and creature comforts like an air-conditioned cabin, the shorted-out TV in the back, and the clunky flip-phone that does little more than take calls and tell time in his pocket, Michael operates pretty much in a clearer snapshot of how his grandpa, Sinkey Boone, fished, the way so many men have shrimped off Georgia for more than sixty years. There aren’t as many of those men as there used to be. The Little Man slips past several boats, tow arms up, paint-chipped hulls barnacled, bobbing idly at dock along the river. More than 200 boats once trolled here. Now there are maybe half that. Buildings are shuttered, piers in disrepair. Darien is quiet. Some families, like the Skippers, have sold off their fleets and their docks. Others cling to the helm only because they have nowhere else to go. Michael started skipping school at age eleven to join his father on the boat. Today, at twenty-three, he is easily one of the youngest boat captains—perhaps the youngest—in these parts, an exception to a new Darien generation that has been steered away, if not discouraged by the old guard, from the sea, Michael’s two older brothers included. These waters, after all, are troubled. The price of gas is too high, the price of shrimp too low. The market has been flooded by competition from shrimp farmers, foreign and domestic. Wild Georgia shrimp are scarce at the neighborhood restaurant and grocery store. Worse, nobody seems to know enough about the homegrown variety to ask. And meanwhile the nets’ harvest is not as bountiful as it once was.

Michael Boone stares ahead, piloting the Little Man out of Doughboy Sound and into the ocean, choppy waters slapping against the hull. He gently opens the throttle, revving the ancient engine in the belly of the boat to life. Course charted, speed leveled at just over eight knots, Michael leans back in his captain’s chair. He holds the giant wooden wheel with an outstretched foot and rests his hands behind his head. Outside, the unseen sun traces the horizon with a thin white line as night lifts over a boundless sea.

In the distance, he counts one, two, three starlike specks scattered on the water—lights from the decks of other shrimping boats, working through the night. Michael can envision a much different scene from not so long ago, lights almost innumerable, a skyline at sea. “There used to be twenty, thirty, forty boats out there,” he says flatly. “Twenty years ago, this was a city.”

>> GALLERY: View photos of the shrimping industry in action

Back on the mainland, the city of Darien—population 1,900, seat of McIntosh County—is little more than a few streetlights whizzing by on a nighttime drive down I-95. But its position along a natural tributary, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, made it a boomtown in the 1800s and early 1900s. The river rafted large loads of longleaf pine and cypress from the Georgia interior into Darien to be milled and shipped around the world. In the 1940s, one of those log bundles floated a man named Tessie Boone from Tattnall County, two counties inland, to town.

By that time, more than a century of unfettered cutting had decimated Georgia’s timber industry. But Darien had already begun reinventing itself as a fishing town. The proliferation of gas-run trawlers empowered small fishermen to venture farther off the coast and reel in a commercial-sized catch, while refrigeration enabled them to ship it all over the country. The big ticket was wild brown and white shrimp that bred and fed on the bottoms just a few miles offshore. Tessie was hired as a crewman on local shrimp boats, and in 1946 he built his own, Altamaha I, cutting many of the planks by hand. All four of Tessie’s sons came aboard at a young age, and by the late 1950s, when the Boone boys were old enough to operate their own vessels, the patriarch started Boone’s Seafood, one of dozens of family-owned wholesale shrimp companies that popped up along the Georgia coast.

Unlike the family farms of the Midwest, where every hand was needed in the field or the farmhouse, shrimping tended to be a smaller enterprise, with just two or three men per boat—a captain, who decided when and where to fish, and one or two strikers to tend the nets—and a handful of men and women off-loading and processing the hauls back at the dock. As a result, shrimpers’ sons generally weren’t conscripted into service. But they went out anyway, kids ten and eleven ditching school to hop into the departing trawlers, eventually dropping out to work on the water. “If you don’t get into it young, you don’t get into it,” says Greg Boone, Michael’s dad and one of Tessie’s eight shrimping grandsons. “When the kids start insisting on going out and they don’t get sick, you know they’re going to get into it.”

When Greg was getting into it in the 1970s and early 1980s, big shrimp were fetching $6, sometimes even $7 per pound, and Georgia shrimpers were pulling in up to 6 million pounds each year. Gas cost fifty cents to a dollar per gallon, and after expenses shrimpers were easily netting $50,000 to $60,000 (about $130,000 to $160,000 today) fishing four months out of the year. Greg says he once cleared $18,000 in one day, the equivalent of around $40,000 in today’s dollars. “And we didn’t even get up until the sun was off the water,” he says.

The dull 7 a.m. sunlight seeps into the pilothouse, revealing Michael, lean and muscular in a dirty white undershirt and jeans. The console before him is cluttered with charts, half-empty water bottles, a blackened tobacco spittoon, a crinkled bag of SunChips, and, pinned above the windshield, a washed out Polaroid of his mother. Long divorced from his father, she owns a meat market back in Darien.

Below his mother’s picture is a recent photo of Michael and a young blonde holding a chubby baby boy. The woman’s name is April. Michael has never gotten around to marrying her, but “we might as well be,” he says. “I’ve been with her for six years.” The couple recently learned that they are pregnant again—a girl—one of several reasons Michael is impatient to stop working for his father and buy his own boat, the only real way to make money in this business. But even with so many shrimpers dry-docking their dreams, a working trawler still runs anywhere from $35,000 to $70,000, to say nothing of the cost of running it on diesel at $3.20 per gallon. Those $40,000 days are maritime myth now. 

What’s more, as a captain, Michael sees only 15 percent of the daily take, compared to the 65 percent that goes to the owner—Michael’s father, in this case. Michael wants his father to cut him a deal on the Little Man, but Greg Boone won’t hear of it. He’s been saying for years that Michael should scrape together what he can and buy a $10,000 clunker to fix up and make his own, just as Greg did thirty years ago. He’s told Michael over and over: If you want something bad enough . . . 

Michael calms the throttle to a hum at Blackbeard Hole, a stretch of water between the Georgia coastline and Blackbeard Island, a couple of miles from the mainland, eleven miles northeast of the dock. Federal-controlled seas (those beyond three miles from shore) are open to shrimping year-round, but coastal waters are typically closed until late April, until the shrimp have laid their eggs and the larvae have begun moving in to feed on spring plants that grow in the shallows and estuaries. However, because of last year’s long winter, Georgia didn’t open season until the end of June. Boatmen didn’t mind—the delay allowed their quarry more time to breed, feed, and grow. July was a strong month, but due to engine troubles, the Little Man was docked for all of August and September. Michael needs to play catch-up. “Left some shrimp here the other day,” he says, stretching and standing to rouse the crew.

He walks through the bridge, past his quarters and the bathroom and into the mess hall, outfitted with oven range, a sink, and a fridge full of sweet tea, hot dogs, eggs, and sliced ham—anything to avoid frying meat in the pot of stale oil sliding around on the rack in the oven. Built in 1975, the Little Man is wired and piped, although the crew flushes the toilet with a tin pot full of water. In Tessie’s day, these amenities were unnecessary, as small-town shrimpers left at dawn and returned before dark. But with radar for guidance and electronic chart plotters that can log what areas have been fished, Tessie’s descendants can stay out for days. Michael is often at sea more than a week, stuffing the cargo hold as full as he can.

Behind the kitchen are the crew’s quarters—a narrow cell with low wooden bunks. At Michael’s woo-hoo, twenty-two-year-old Tommie Hurst springs from his top bed. He’s new—a high-school friend of Michael’s who came aboard last July after a second DUI cost him his job with the Department of Corrections. Behind him is Tracy “Tray” Palmer, forty-seven, a divorced father of two who’s been a striker since he joined Michael’s grandfather on his boat thirty years ago. Tray takes his time, carefully leaving his Bible and a notebook on the bottom bunk.

On deck, Michael switches on an old winch, reeling in a steel cable on the starboard side attached to a sample sack—a net about the size of Santa’s bag, the contents of which will give the crew an indication of what to expect from the larger nets that they dropped at 5 a.m. Tommie and Tray guide the sack to the open deck and spill the contents: a pile of small fish, cannonball jellyfish or “jelly balls,” and sixty-six brown shrimp, most between six and ten inches long—a good sign. “It’s pretty,” Tommie says, picking out an eight-incher. “This one, you just want to arrr . . . ,” as he bites the head off.

The winch grinds as it winds thick steel cables that stretch to the end of twin sixty-four-foot tow arms, pulling the nets from the shallow sea. On each side emerge two quarter-ton steel doors, nine-by-four-foot plates chained together at an angle to form a kind of plow. For the past two hours, the boat has been dragging the doors along the sea bottom, some five to seven feet down, dredging shrimp that dwell there up and into the nets towed behind them.

The nets, bursting with the day’s first catch, are hoisted out of the water and emptied over the deck, forming a writhing, two-foot mountain of white fish, sunfish, blowfish, jellyfish, jelly balls, rays, eels, and crabs. The strikers pick out the light brown, almost translucent shrimp, separate the heads with a quick pinch of thumb and forefinger, and throw the meaty torso and tail in a basket. Shrimp are actually worth five cents more head-on, but they’ll keep that way for only three days, and Michael is hoping for a weeklong haul. The strikers work with honed efficiency, but still not fast enough for the other fish, the bycatch, which are picked off by the dozens of gulls and pelicans or are left to flop and slowly suffocate. The waste would be worse if not for Michael’s grandfather, Sinkey, who developed the TED (Turtle Excluder Device) or “Georgia Jumper”—a chute attached at the tail-end of each trawl that diverts larger fish, horseshoe crabs, and sea turtles before they get caught in the net. In the 1980s, the government made TEDs mandatory on every vessel.

When the baskets are full, the bycatch is swept into the sea, and the shrimp are lowered into the hold, rinsed in water and the preservative ammonia bisulfate, and packed in ice. Meanwhile, the doors and empty nets return to the ocean bottom and the process starts anew, over and again until dark—unless the captain deems the daylight pickings too slim and resolves to keep at it through the night.

As the sun sets on the Little Man, after sixteen hours of shrimping in Blackbeard Hole, Michael estimates that they’ve pulled in a bumper crop of more than a thousand pounds of shrimp. Even at just $5 a pound (barely two-thirds the price of thirty years ago, not factoring for inflation), that’s more than $5,000 for one day. To celebrate, the crew dines on a boxed Thai noodle mix spruced up with a couple dozen ocean-fresh Georgia shrimp.

In the late 1970s, while everyone with a boat seemed to be trawling a small fortune from the sea, landlubbers cut into the game. Arizona, Texas, and Florida started cultivating their own shrimp in ponds year-round. Without the overhead of boats, nets, and gasoline, farmers could sell their shrimp at a lower price. And when equatorial countries like Thailand and Ecuador got into the shrimp-farm business—penny-paid labor and lack of government regulation making their product still cheaper—the U.S. market began to flood. Prices tumbled. In 1980 farm-raised shrimp constituted 2 percent of the world’s shrimp production. By 1991 that number was 25 percent. Today 90 percent of all shrimp eaten in the U.S. are imported, and nearly half of that are raised in ponds.

Meanwhile, the local shrimpers’ struggle to compete has been exacerbated by the rising cost of gasoline. In a weeklong trip, Little Man’s engine will gulp down about 1,500 gallons. At $3.20 per gallon, that’s almost $5,000, which means it will take 1,250 pounds of shrimp just to cover fuel, to say nothing of the other equipment, from the $40 rubber boots to the $1,200 nylon nets. Throw in 10 percent of the take for each striker and another 15 percent for the skipper, and it’s easy to see why the boat owner sweats as much as the crewmen. And what happens when something goes out on one of these old boats, like an engine blows or, God forbid, the nets just don’t find the shrimp? “Things are tight, it’s easy to fall behind,” says Greg. “And with a little bad luck, you can’t catch up.”

With far fewer boats trolling these waters than thirty years ago, one might think there’d be more shrimp for the taking. But even though scientists say the brown and white shrimp populations have held steady, average annual hauls are down by more than a third, sometimes half, of what they were in the 1980s. Shrimpers acknowledge the practical explanations: fewer boats going out, therefore fewer bringing in, and fuel costs limiting the area covered. The weights of the harvest are mostly self-reported to the state by the shrimpers, anyway. But something about being at sea for days at a time tends to make these men superstitious. They don’t throw back debris caught in the trawl for fear they might run into it later. To avoid tempting fate, they don’t harm the gulls that squawk incessantly and coat the boat with droppings. And they often pick their dragging spots by following a feeling in their gut. So when the nets come up light or empty, shrimpers may wonder what they’ve done to anger the gods.

But for the moment, the luck of Darien shrimpers is holding. Even though the harsh 2010 winter killed off too many shrimp to enable South Atlantic shrimpers to take advantage of Gulf Coast competition idled by the BP oil spill, 2011 was warmer, leaving a larger crop and more time in the fall to harvest it. Local wholesalers like the Boones, who sell almost all of their catch to outside distributors, found a new buyer out of Tampa who was steadying his price for jumbo shrimp at right around $5 a pound. That, combined with a temporary leveling-off of gas prices, made for a good year. Still, Darien shrimpers will tell you that if they hit another snag like the early 2000s, when fuel prices soared and shrimp prices dove, it may put them all out of business for good.

In his ledger, Michael crunches the numbers: He figures Little Man’s haul from the first day of this voyage will fetch $4,850 back at the dock. That’s $485 for each striker and $727.50 for Captain Michael. A good day.

But then, on the day’s final haul, one of the nets gets torn, snagging on a submerged rock formation that Michael didn’t have on his charts. This earns a cell phone chewing-out from his father and a chance for the young captain to practice his sewing skills, hand-patching the hole with a spool of black thread—one of the many money-saving skills every true shrimper needs. In the name of budget-streamlining, Michael has shimmied out on the trawling arm over heaving seas to save a $150 set of doors, nearly sliced open his hand rethreading a $400 steel cable, even wrestled a $5 fish from the gullet of a stowaway pelican (although, admittedly, the latter was on the principle of the thing). Greg says that his son knows “about two-thirds of what I knew when I was his age. Two-thirds of what Michael needs to know to own his own boat.”

The torn trawl is an omen. The next morning, the crew oversleeps. The sample sack is little more than a few dozen shrimp among a mass of jelly balls, and the first catch, not hauled in until 9 a.m., is correspondingly light. Michael collapses in his captain’s chair and offers an off-key chorus: “Mama said there’d be days like this . . . ”

Tommie plops down on his stool, shades on, earphones in, hovering over his pile like a poker player. Across from him, Tray sits, legs straight out, popping shrimp heads with practiced repetition. “I like being out here,” he says, looking out at the broad blue sky, fingers snapping heads all the while. “It gives me peace of mind. Clarity.”

But up in the pilothouse, Michael finds anything but. He is poring over charts and maps, scouring his memory for where the shrimp might be waiting. The only “science” he has to go on is the knowledge that during low tide like this, shrimp tend to cluster, and that the later it is in the year, the farther out they are likely to be. He has a map marked with the places he has tried before. Beyond that, the hunt is pure intuition. And Michael can pick any patch of blue on the map—there is no such thing as territory among shrimpers. No one owns the sea. Besides, because of the way shrimp gather on the uneven ocean floor, rippled with little trenches and holes where bottom-dwellers can hide, one trawler can drag right beside another and catch three times as many shrimp.

By 2:30 in the afternoon, the Little Man has pulled in only 300 pounds of shrimp. Tommie and Tray, who have both worked with Greg, joke openly about the elder Boone’s unpredictability, about how he will often abort a bad drag on a whim, pull up his nets, and motor to another spot. They laugh that he would’ve quit Blackbeard Hole a long time ago. But the crew knows that the son is the photo negative of his father. They know Michael intends to drag this spot until he hits pay dirt, even if it takes all night.

And indeed, as the distant shore swallows the sun, the bright fluorescent lamp atop the mast of the Little Man joins the three or four others scattered across the black sea. The winch grinds, the doors dive, dragging the trawls again across an invisible floor. Tommie hits the mess for a snack, while Tray remains on the empty deck, savoring the disappearing horizon. And as night reclaims the unlit pilothouse, Michael waits, staring into nothingness, groping for a clue as to what may lie in the darkness beneath.

Q&A with Allen Ault

In the hours leading up to the September execution of Troy Davis, protests and pleas for clemency could be heard from hundreds of voices across the nation. But none was more impassioned or surprising than a letter issued from six retired corrections officials, led by former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Allen Ault, who personally oversaw the executions of five Georgia men before resigning in 1995. Here, Ault, now dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, describes the true cost of capital punishment and why, after sixteen years, he decided to speak up now.

Photograph by Ron Garrison

When you first started in criminal justice, what were your feelings toward the death penalty? Just after I became warden of the prison in Jackson in 1971, the death penalty was outlawed by the Supreme Court [in 1972], the laws declared unconstitutional. So I didn’t give the death penalty any thought at all. Later a law was passed in Georgia and declared constitutional, serving as a model for other states. There wasn’t a lot of research at the time, but I thought that, if it truly served as a deterrent, I could support it. But that was abstract—I wasn’t directly involved in any capital punishment, so I didn’t have any strong feelings at that time.

When did your feelings start to shift? It was in the early 1990s when I left my job as a private consultant in Atlanta to serve as new commissioner of the Department of Corrections. We had a lot of people on death row and executions were scheduled. In the past, as I understood it, the commissioner would stay in Atlanta and handle executions via phone in a conference room. But I have always thought that you don’t ask staff to do things that you aren’t willing to do, so I decided to go down to Jackson for the executions.

The first two men I helped execute were both involved in the same crime [Thomas Dean Stevens and Christopher Burger, who had robbed, raped, and murdered a cabdriver]. They were seventeen when they were incarcerated and [thirty-six] when they were killed, so they had spent [nearly] half their life on death row. I talked with them and got to know them. So when you go to execute them, that becomes very personal. It was no longer an abstraction. And it truly evokes some strong feelings of revulsion. It didn’t feel right, morally. It didn’t seem right.

I had been trained to kill people in the Army, but this was totally different. We had a manual about two inches thick. We rehearsed. And the electric chair was a very gruesome instrument.

How so? When they brought back capital punishment in Florida, they had several unfortunate incidents with electrocution. One inmate’s hair caught on fire. A couple times they had to executive two or three times because it didn’t work. Pretty gruesome. The ones I was involved in, we made sure that everything was just right before the execution. We didn’t want to make a circus out of it.

Taking a life is not something to celebrate.

Believe me, there is a lot of political grandstanding in corrections. Politicians appeal to the base instincts of their electorate.

You’ve spoken before about civilians writing you to volunteer to flip the switch themselves. I had several of those messages. Confucius said that if you set out for vengeance, you need to dig two holes in the earth. I think that’s true: If you’re out for vengeance, it’ll destroy you.

Is that what capital punishment is, revenge? Well, all the research indicates it is not a deterrent. All the inmates I’ve ever talked to who had killed people told me that they hadn’t thought through to the consequences of their act. Some people say, “You deterred the guy you executed.” Well, I’ve talked with Charlie Manson and Sirhan Sirhan and those people have certainly been deterred—they’re in prison.

Besides, capital punishment is very expensive. It’s in the millions of dollars now, once you get through all the court proceedings. It’s a lot less expensive to keep someone in prison for life.

And I can understand, I have ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild and I know that if anything happened to my family, I would have feelings like that. I would want the individual caught and put away. But I would hope that I would not be lusting for blood as revenge.

I’ve talked to victims’ families, and it really diminishes them. I have seen some families whose faith or moral compass . . . after their initial feelings of wanting revenge, their healthier feelings prevail. They even end up forgiving the individual, so they could live with themselves. They knew that killing them wouldn’t bring their son or daughter back.

When you were commissioner, you didn’t allow victims’ families to witness executions. I did not. I certainly allowed them in the institution. We provided chaplain and counseling services. We served them a meal. But we kept them and execution witnesses separated. I didn’t want the families to see the executed as a victim of their revenge.

You’ve met Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. I understand you have visited the prison where Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the first World Trade Center bomber were held. Even these people, who have perpetrated crimes killing dozens or hundreds of innocents, they don’t deserve death? In all honesty, the killing of Osama bin Laden did not bother me. Morally I’m against taking the life of another, but if they had taken him alive, they would have made a martyr out of him and that, I believe, might have caused the deaths of thousands more. So do I justify it by degrees or by the numbers they kill? I’m not sure.

But I still have a problem with this society saying we’re going to deter people from murdering people by murdering somebody. It just seems hypocritical and illogical. And research shows it doesn’t work. I would not have minded at all if McVeigh had spent the rest of his life locked up. That is tremendous punishment. I know from spending thousands of hours working in prisons, that if I thought I couldn’t walk out that door, that would have been supreme punishment.

So you think the death penalty is an easy way out for criminals? Death is an easy way out.

But it isn’t easy on those who administer the death penalty. Describe the toll it took on you, personally. The first two executions were horrendous. And as we went on, the third, the fourth . . . We were providing psychological help to staff who wanted it and needed it, but I realized that I was not getting any help. I wasn’t handling it very well at all. I was having nightmares . . . it’s very analogous to post-traumatic stress disorder, which wasn’t really defined at the time. Your mind just can’t grasp or justify what you are doing. You have feelings of guilt. My conscience really hurt.

I think the best people I ever met in corrections, who were the most effective, were the people who got into it as a helping profession. When you’re trained that way, killing people is not a part of your psyche that you can accept. This isn’t my line, but I read it somewhere: “Killing is easy. But living with it is hard.”

And these feelings of anguish are in regards to people who are, in your mind, guilty beyond reasonable doubt, many who have confessed as much. How much worse would it be when there is a significant doubt, as with the Troy Davis case? With all the scientific advances in DNA, they’ve found so many on death row who were actually innocent. I’ve seen all the research on how jury selection impacts whether or not they get the death penalty, all the research in how unevenly the death penalty is applied. And I’ve been involved with the system long enough to know that it isn’t about justice—it’s about winning. It’s an adversarial system, and that doesn’t always bring about the best justice. So how do you execute anybody with any certainty that you’re not executing an innocent person? For me now, and a lot of others, that doubt makes personally applying the death penalty impossible.

You couldn’t do it anymore. You left the GDC in 1995 to work with National Institute of Corrections, to, as you said at the time, “work to improve criminal justice, without participating in the worst parts of it.” Then this September you re-enter the fray by coauthoring the letter against the Troy Davis execution. What was it about this case that brought you into the death penalty debate? There was a strong feeling that here was a case with a lot of doubt. I’ve never experienced that directly, where there was a lot of doubt presented about the guilt of an individual I was going to execute. And I would think that level of doubt would magnify the emotions in those performing the execution a thousand times. That was my concern.

That, and it was occurring in the prison where I had been warden, in the state where I had directed the [GDC]. That made it very personal.

What do hope is the legacy of the Troy Davis case and the attention his execution garnered nationwide? I would hope some of the things that came out of that case would make people think or re-think their position on the death penalty, and that there might be movement in one or two states to abolish it. Several states have abolished it, and their violent crime rate is lower than states that haven’t. But in the [United States], corrections isn’t guided by research or best practices, it’s guided by politics, appealing to the basest instincts of human beings. I would hope we could move beyond those politics. But I don’t have any great faith that Troy Davis is going to change the death penalty in Georgia.

Many supporters of the death penalty say that there is no proof that an innocent person has ever been executed in the United States. I think we’re just kidding ourselves if we think we haven’t.


Tony Rehagen is our senior editor.
Learn more about him | Follow him on Twitter | Contact him

A closer look at Luther Cain Jr. and his relationship with Robert Woodruff


Herman Cain has written and spoken widely about his admiration for his late father, Luther Cain Jr., the man who moved young Herman, his brother, Thurman, and their mother, Lenora, from Memphis to Atlanta in the late 1940s. Luther’s plight—humping jobs as a barber, a janitor, and a chauffeur in the segregated South to support his family—has become a central part of the Cain campaign’s rags-to-riches mythology.

But for a fuller portrait of the Cain patriarch, we went to Emory University and dove into the archived papers of the man Luther chauffeured for three decades, former Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff. Within the voluminous collection (577 boxes), one folder containing sixty-one pages is dedicated to Luther Cain. The first document is a 1962 letter from a Coke employee to Mr. Woodruff regarding Luther’s desire, after ten years part-time with Coke, to become the president’s full-time driver. The interesting part is a reason given for the request: “In addition to himself,” the letter states, “(Luther’s) dependents consist of a wife and two children (Herman was 16), plus a third child he is supporting resulting, he says, from an earlier indiscretion.”

Indeed, later in the file, we found a program from Luther’s 1982 funeral, and among the survivor’s listed in the obituary are sons Herman and Thurman and two daughters, Merlene Taylor and Martha P. Warren. A quick Internet search for “Herman Cain” and “half sister,” brought up only an AP photograph of Herman embracing a woman at an October campaign stop in Tennessee. The woman is identified as Herman’s half sister, “Myrlean Taylor of Eads.” Eads, Tennessee, is a suburb of Memphis in Shelby County, where, according to Herman’s biography, Luther was born and lived until he was 18 and where he and Lenora lived for a short time after they were married. A Myrlean Taylor in Eads did not return our phone calls. We could not find number for Martha P. Warren. There is no further mention in the Woodruff file of any Cain siblings.

Most of the Woodruff file deals with Luther’s financial situation. According to the 1962 letter, Luther made a modest $1.65/hr or $66/week, equivalent to about $25,000 today—not a fortune, but not exactly impoverished, and that was in addition to what he made at the barbershop, which, the letter says, he owned. By 1967, archived payroll forms indicate Luther was helping put Herman through his senior year at Morehouse with a salary $2.68/hr or roughly $5,500/year ($37,000 in 2011). And by 1976, according to Woodruff documents, Luther Cain was pulling in more than $60,000 a year (equivalent to more than $200,000 today), including a $22.8K salary (90K in 2011) and yields from Coke stock and municipal bonds. And as for what might have happened between 1967 and 1976 to bring such windfall, the file only provides one clue, a cryptic 1971 note in Luther’s script: “Dear Mr. Woodruff, May I say to you thanks again for making a dream come true in my life, for the gift you gave me on June 9th. I shall never forget that day … Please trust me that I will never-never-I mean never let you down.”

But Luther’s health would end his service to Mr. Woodruff by the end of the decade. In 1976, doctors at Emory University Clinic informed Mr. Woodruff of Luther’s diminishing eyesight, due to diabetes, rendering him unable to drive. By November of 1978, Luther had been cleared to receive long-term disability and his employment at Coca-Cola came to an end. Mr. Woodruff stayed in touch with his former driver, sending Luther $100 for his birthday in 1981 and 1982. But less than two weeks after his 57th birthday, on March 29, 1982, Luther Cain died. Mr. Woodruff ordered $60 to $70 worth of flowers.

The last page of the file is a notecard, dated April 13, 1982, eleven days after Luther’s funeral. It is the phone number of “Herman Cain (Luther’s Son)” in Minnesota.

Student Life

[ Tech ]

7:29 a.m. 

Devin Roach knows a shortcut to breakfast. The spiky-haired eighteen-year-old bounds into the budding morning from Armstrong Hall, a dour 1960s low-rise freshman dorm, and strides confidently across the empty courtyard before crossing the street and cutting through a nearby parking deck. “I’ve seen a few other people walking around with maps,” he says. “I feel like I’m in the know.”

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

Devin has been at Tech for five weeks. When his plane from Albuquerque landed, he didn’t know a single person in Atlanta. But today he enters Woodruff Dining Hall like a regular, silverware in his back pocket, making small talk with the woman behind the counter. Devin loads up on biscuits and gravy and sausage links—what he calls “a man’s meal.” Then he scans the room. He recognizes the cliques—from the swimmers with shaved heads by the door to the more subtle tables of threes and fours that occupy the same space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Devin flutters between groups, collecting experiences and acquaintances. He went through rush with a dorm mate but never pledged. He is a member of the Panamanian Students at Georgia Tech (he spent a summer in Panama), the Spanish Speaking Organization (he is fluent in a “ghetto” New Mexican dialect), and the Student Alumni Association. He says he even tried to walk on to the tennis team before he realized they practiced three times a day. “I just don’t have time,” he says.

Today Devin decides to join a mop-haired fellow freshman. They talk about football and roommates and computer games, before the boy leaves for an 8 a.m. class. At 8:15, Devin heads back to his room, slipping into the walk-in-closet-sized space to grab his toothbrush and a sweatshirt while trying not to wake his roommate. In the bathroom, he runs into another guy from class. The two talk about their Friday night plans. Devin has tickets to Georgia Tech Night at Six Flags, for which the university has rented out the entire park, opening it to students and faculty. Devin is excited because, as a mechanical engineer, he wants to build roller coasters one day.

But right now he has to catch the bus to his 9 a.m. chemistry class. Today he’ll get the grade on his first test. He isn’t optimistic. Tech is known for trying to weed out freshmen, especially in its competitive engineering programs. And even though the Institute has improved retention rates, past data indicates that around 6 percent of this year’s 2,575 incoming freshmen will not be back next fall.

8:28 a.m.

The bricks of string-bound papers are stacked into walls just inside the offices of the Technique, the student-run college newspaper. In the back, computers idle beside the deadline fallout of pizza boxes and take-out containers strewn with cold, flimsy fries and rubbery lettuce. In the old darkroom-turned-lounge, a green couch sags, cushions sunk where a reporter has slept. The editor’s desk is covered with proofs marked with green and red ink. But beside the proofs is the giveaway, the thing that would never, under any circumstances, be found in the office of a right-brained reporter: a massive textbook titled Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer.

That’s not really fair to the book’s owner, the young man with the shadow of a mustache sitting at the desk, Technique editor in chief Vijai Narayanan. For the past three years, the mechanical engineering major has poured his spare hours into this paper, first as a freshman reporter, then as an assistant editor, then as a news editor before taking the big chair this year. And as there is no journalism program at Tech, he has had to train himself and his staff of fellow scientists to put out a newspaper. He says it has given him a chance to work on his writing, engage people and ask questions, and better get to know campus. “Plus,” he says, “I was looking for anything that wasn’t math all day.”

Of course, there are advantages to having engineers running a newspaper. For instance, they don’t need an IT department to service faulty computers. And in these dire economic times, what media outlet couldn’t use a leader formally trained in logistics?

Distribution is the problem of the day, here as elsewhere, and as Vijai delivers the bundles of the latest edition from the back of the Technique’s electric golf cart—the driver’s side door of which even the mechanical engineers have not been able to fix—he’ll be looking for optimal places for pick-up racks to better serve students. The Technique publishes 10,000 copies weekly, except during finals week, and it is available to Tech’s 20,000-plus students and faculty for free (partially financed by student fees). From these pages they can get the scoop on Tech’s appeal of NCAA penalties on its athletics programs or reports of students victimized by crime, especially when they wander off campus and into the west side of the city. Vijai also pushes the paper to be more satirical—a challenge with inexperienced writers getting paid only $10 per story.

Vijai rolls across campus, 400 acres in the middle of a mad metropolis, monitoring high-traffic areas like Brittain Dining Hall. The sign, though, reads “Bri ain.” In fact, T’s are missing from signs across campus. The 1960s student tradition of stealing the trademark T from atop Tech Tower administrative building has recently evolved to include the T’s on all campus signage, a trend that reportedly has cost the university $100,000 in repairs. But on his rounds, Vijai is focused on which Technique racks are empty, poorly labeled, or not labeled at all, racks that have been moved a few feet from the door into the corner. The problem stems from an ever-shifting campus, seemingly under constant construction.

He pulls up to the Carnegie Building, grabs a bundle, and walks inside and up the stairs, to a table outside a conference room, where a woman greets Vijai with a smile. The woman works in the office of the university president, and behind her is a meeting of the Georgia Tech Foundation. “We always like to have some Techniques on hand,” she tells him. He thanks her and tells her that he’ll see her next week. He has an interview with the president for a story.

12:06 p.m.

She’s been at it for six hours. Captain of the swim team, fourth-year Heidi Hatteberg was in the water by 6 a.m., in the weight room by 7:30, on the training table at 8:45, in Structures Analysis at 10:05, then running at 11. Now the petite Louisville native, brown hair pulled tight into a ponytail, moves quickly through the outskirts of Grant Field en route to the Weber Building, a squat structure on the south side of campus with tall, dark windows and an ancient-looking satellite dish planted out front. There she has a meeting with her adviser, Dr. Dimitri Mavris, to discuss her future.

Mavris is a distinguished faculty member of Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering and has been Heidi’s mentor since she emailed him as a sophomore to share her dream of being a pilot. He invited her to a picnic at Stone Mountain for all aerospace professors and students, and she’s been building on those connections, that ambition, and a 3.67 grade point average ever since.

But with nine months until graduation, Heidi is nervous. She enters a vacant conference room and pulls out a chair beside Mavris at the end of a long table. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” she tells him. Then she pulls out a career fair brochure from a defense contractor offering to pay for grad school in return for a commitment to stay with the company. It is high-paying, government defense work—a job that many students would kill for. But Mavris takes a breath, pushes the brochure aside, and puts both hands flat on the table.

“This is a stable path,” he says of the brochure, looking into her eyes like a father to his child. “But I personally think you can do better. You’ll be in demand. There are very few women in engineering. There are few at the master’s level. There are none at the Ph.D. level. It’s supply and demand. And I don’t want to see you cash in too early.

“This is a stable job,” he continues. “This is for people who don’t have a very bright future.”

Heidi puts the brochure back in her bag and out of her mind. She talks about getting her grad school application together. He smiles and tells her she’s months ahead of the game. Then the two shake hands and he walks her to the stairwell.

As she leaves the building, Heidi is stirred from meditation by heavy sneaker falls on the walkway. “Hold the door open!” yells a young man sprinting toward her. He blows past, leaving behind a thwarted pursuer. Apparently the two are participating in a campus-wide outdoor zombie tag game. The chaser with a yellow band around his head is a zombie; the sprinter now safely inside with a yellow band around his arm, a target human.

Heidi laughs. She has some free time before her 3 p.m. lab. She needs to eat lunch and find a quiet place to study.

2:07 p.m.

The door to Room E283 of the Van Leer Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Building won’t open, and fourth-year Matt Jacobson doesn’t understand why. Fresh out of Digital Design Lab, the electrical engineering major was hoping to work on the circuit board he’s been building for class. But the lab is behind this locked door.

Shirt buttoned and tucked tidily into belted khakis, loafers with no socks, Matt checks his smartphone—which, he says, “dominates” his life—to see what else he needs to work on. He decides to tote his laptop across the lawn to Clough Commons. He enters through heavy glass doors. At the top, he passes the Starbucks that drains his bank account, climbing another staircase to a floor of cubicles, each containing a table and chairs beneath a dry-erase board for group projects and study sessions.

He finds a quiet corner seat and opens his Sony Vaio. Since the school has conspired against his doing work for class, he’ll take the opportunity to catch up on other tasks. For while Matt spends sixteen hours a week in the classroom working toward a degree, he spends the rest working for himself, developing websites for campus organizations like Engineers Without Borders (geared to helping people in developing nations), the Solar Jackets solar-car race team, the Interfraternity Council, and Enterprise to Empower, which promotes “social entrepreneurship”—among the buzzwords Matt wields readily—in Atlanta. He says going to school in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities affords Tech students a great opportunity to get involved in business. “On campus, the city can disappear,” he says. “But it can reappear if you want it to.”

At quarter till 3, Matt closes the computer and ventures onto the Clough roof, which is actually a large landscaped garden of tall grasses, shrubs, and small flowering trees. He points up admirably at the solar panels and lets slip another buzzword: “sustainability.” Matt says, as a businessman, there is plenty of profitability in making a positive social and environmental impact. “It’s going on everywhere,” he says. “And that’s the only way you’re going to make things happen.”

 3:17 p.m.

Leaning over a workbench in the muted light of an overcast sky that seeps into the studio through the broad windows of the Architecture Building, Morgan Rice holds her invention in her hands. The Illume is a simple, pocket-sized message board upon which one can scribble a note in black dry-erase, flip on the bright blue light inserted in the base, and broadcast to a friend across a noisy room. For now it’s just a prototype prism of clear plastic that Morgan laser-cut herself and wired with a small light-emitting diode, something she and a partner conceptualized and produced in three short weeks.

Morgan is a third-year industrial design major, continuing the family tradition of making things. Her grandfather, a Navy man back in Weaverville, North Carolina, a small town just north of Asheville, designed and built all kinds of contraptions. But Morgan is proud to be the first one in her family to attend a four-year university.

She chose Tech over Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina to be closer to her father, who has lived in Carrollton, Georgia, since she was five—two years after the divorce. She now works for his company, cleaning bathrooms and emptying trash bins at Stone Mountain, one of her two jobs.

The twenty-one-year-old was scrubbing toilets before class at 8:30 this morning. After this design lab lets out, she plans on meeting with the Christian Campus Fellowship, of which she is a member. Then she’ll cut loose with some friends at Six Flags.

 7:48 p.m.

The Tech buses pull into the Six Flags parking lot, passing other students who drove themselves, some pounding cans of beer behind their cars before making for the entrance, where members of the Marching Yellow Jackets await with brass and brazen spirit.

Devin enters having just received a text from a friend who says they’re in line at Goliath, a towering 200-foot-high roller coaster that rises over the entire park. He recognizes a few other groups, smiles and waves, but is thus far content to hit the first few rides sans friends. He starts at the Georgia Scorcher, a smaller coaster on a track of tight loops and twists that, in his opinion, could’ve used a few more elevations and drops.

Night falls. While waiting in line for Goliath, Devin’s pal Kirt expresses his anxiety about the ride—it’s his first time on a roller coaster in years, he says. Devin tries to calm his friend, pointing out that there are no loops on Goliath, just ups and downs. But something else is bothering Devin. As the pair prepare to board the ride, he tells Kirt about the chemistry test. He got a 65. “I’m going to have to study harder,” he says.

Finally it’s their turn. They sit down, arms up to allow the lap bars to be secured. There’s the hiss of the brake releasing as the car moves out of the gate and the ratcheting of the chain pulling it up the steep sloping track to the apex, 200 feet above the ground. From here, Devin can see the boundless skyline lit up against the backdrop night. The entire city is at his feet. Then a pause, a quick, deep breath, before the car plummets, Devin falling, laughing and screaming, 170 feet down into the shadows.


[ UGA ]

4:57 a.m.

The body is awake. It rises at the alarm, slipping out of bed and into shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes. It knows the route blind through the dark dorm: past the open art history book on the desk; down the hall; past the bathroom, green Mardi Gras beads on a wadded-up bath mat; exiting past the pizza box on the kitchen counter. The body leaves Vandiver, where many athletes choose to stay beyond the required freshman year. At this hour, they merely need to sleepwalk across a dark and desolate street to get to facilities like the Ramsey Center, a sprawling $40 million rec center where students and staff come to work out, play racquetball, and scale the climbing wall. The body goes downstairs, through the mildewy locker room, to the Olympic-sized pool, and onto the starting platform, where limbs contort and spring forward. But it isn’t until the body hits the water just after 5 a.m. that Will Freeman’s mind joins the waking world.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore

For seventy-five minutes, the broad-shouldered sophomore from Atlanta is just another black swim cap in a bubbling soup of fifty swimmers. During the season, Will spends twenty hours a week in this water, in the weight room, or climbing the aisles of Sanford Stadium training for the 1,650-yard freestyle, the swimmer’s mile, in which he was a U.S. National finalist this past summer. Along the way, he squeezes in fifteen hours of class every week. Will is undeclared, just as he’s undecided on what he wants to be when he can no longer be a swimmer. He is twenty years old. Right now all his brain has room for is stroke-breath, stroke-breath.

Out of the pool, Will hustles to catch up with three female teammates down the hallway who are gossiping about a friend’s string of drunken texts from last night. At 7 a.m. breakfast, he sits between them at the table and smiles nervously as they tease him about being a big shot.

After breakfast, Will mounts his red scooter. Helmet on, he zooms past the students, parking feet away from Stegeman Coliseum, the sleekly renovated, forty-seven-year-old gymnasium where the basketball team plays. In the coliseum’s weight room, the workout resumes. Will picks up a kettlebell beside a female swimmer, a tall, short-haired brunette. He bends and lifts, pausing briefly to see if she’s looking.

8:15 a.m.

She pulls the bus to the front of the Visitors Center, a former dairy barn that is now one wing of the Four Towers Building—the towers being nothing more than empty white grain silos on the southeast edge of campus. Then she turns on the smile honed over a summer internship at WRDW News 12 in Augusta and welcomes the group of high schoolers and parents to the University of Georgia: “Hi y’all. My name is Hannah Drum.”

Hannah herds her group onto the bus and drives them nearly three miles across campus, north to Broad Street to the landmark Arch, the frame of a cast-iron gate that once separated a much smaller campus from the surrounding town—a barrier that is both physically and figuratively long gone. Today almost a third of Athens’s 114,000 people are students at UGA, and that percentage is going up. This year, out of about 18,000 applicants, Georgia accepted 5,500 new freshmen—its largest incoming class to date. The university is also by far the city’s largest employer, which means another 9,800 Athenians make their living directly from the school, to say nothing of all the restaurants, bars, and stores that cater to students. In effect, Athens is the University of Georgia.

But more than a century ago, when that iron fence still stood, Hannah tells her tour, one student vowed never to pass through the gate until he got his degree. That started a superstition among students that if they walk beneath the Arch before receiving their diploma, they will not graduate. Hannah leads her tour group around the iron pillars, past the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, a stately brick structure with a columned entrance that was built as a library before the Civil War. The group shuffles through the grass-covered commons that, Hannah explains, were the original outdoor classrooms of an institution geared toward agriculture when it was founded in 1785. Now students graze with tablets and cell phones tapped into a vast wireless cloud.

In any given year, around 23,000 teens and parents take this tour. But Hannah has never been one of them. In fact, she had never set foot here before the first day of orientation. From age ten, she knew she wanted to be a broadcast journalist, and having her mind set on a big school, in-state, with a strong journalism program, it didn’t take long for her to fix on UGA. She knew she wanted to pledge a sorority and quickly picked the goal of becoming president, which she now is. As a freshman she joined the close to 150 students applying for fifteen to twenty spots as a tour guide—more for prestige than $7.25 per hour. She will graduate in May, precisely on schedule. She knows the job market is rough, especially for journalists. Somehow, she doesn’t seem worried.

11:16 a.m.

Abid Fazal is just coming out of his biochemistry class. He woke up before 8, as he does most days, to drive his thirteen-year-old brother to school.

Abid and his brother live with their parents in a three-bedroom apartment off campus. Actually, the family lives with Abid, as they have since he persuaded them to leave their native Pakistan and return to Georgia, where Abid was raised. The father travels for work as an accountant, leaving Abid to care for his brother and mother, who doesn’t drive because she is recovering from surgery. That, seventeen hours of class each week, and keeping his grades immaculate for a shot at Johns Hopkins med school occupy his days. As he walks, the twenty-year-old’s back is bent beneath a book bag stuffed thicker than his lean torso.

He refuels at the Village Summit dining hall among the science buildings on the east side of campus. Abid pays $3,590 a year to eat three squares, Monday through Friday—just under $20 a day, which would be a bargain if he actually found time to sit down to every meal. Today Abid gathers lunch: grilled chicken with cheese and Buffalo sauce (no bun), a salad (no dressing), watermelon and strawberries, tea and water. His friend, Debashis, who is about a year older than Abid, has ordered pizza and oatmeal.

The pair sit down and launch into a roundup of two worlds: Debashis talking about dropping a class, Abid reminding him that he gets only four drops; Debashis jazzed about his tickets to the football game against Boise State, Abid lamenting that in his haste to get to biochem lab, those were the only tickets he forgot to buy; Abid asking Debashis about his decision to go into “bioterrorism” (“It’s biodefense!” says Debashis. “Very different wording!”); Debashis changing the subject to a spoiled batch of homemade cider and the fact that it’s weird that, of all things, he follows University of Virginia basketball.

“I need another hobby,” says Debashis.

“You could pick up a new minor,” says Abid.

Debashis stares across the table.

“No,” he says. “A hob-by.”

Abid fishes his iPhone from his pocket. 12:03. Physics lab starts at 12:20. He heaves his bag over his shoulder, says goodbye, puts up his dishes, and rushes to the bus. This weekend he plans to take his mother to the mall. She likes the Asian restaurants at the food court. Then he’ll try to gather classmates and get a jump on a project for Arabic class. 12:11. He gets off the bus and makes for a shortcut through a parking lot, then across Cedar Street and into the Physics Building. He’d like to be at least a little early.

2:38 p.m.

The thumb-sized photos on the contact sheet look like they were shot through a mug of beer, a result of forgetting to use yellow on the negative. And even as the photographer and developer, Elizabeth Magoni, runs through the steps of producing a second sheet, her mind is somewhere else.

In the pitch-black darkroom:

“Are you going to the Party?”

In the adjacent processing room:

“It’s going to be insane!”

Waiting by the printer:

“There are going to be like . . . 2,000 people there!”

The Party is a costume bash put on by Phi Slam—Phi Sigma Lamda. Tonight’s theme will be duct tape—where attendees are encouraged to incorporate strips or yards of the stuff into their attire. And since the frat’s mission is to “provide an alternative to the college drinking scene,” there is to be no alcohol, which appeals to Elizabeth, a leader at the Wesley Foundation United Methodist Student Center who pledged not to drink on campus. “It’s just a bunch of guys who love to have a good time and love Jesus,” she says as her second contact sheet comes out.

The art students standing around the printer smile and politely nod.

Elizabeth picks up the new sheet and bites her lower lip in frustration. “Darn,” she says. “This time I forgot to turn off the white light.”

4:32 p.m.

Nekabari Goka clocks out at the International Student Life offices, where he is an event coordinator, and slips over to the Greek Life offices in the basement of the Tate Student Center, a student union across the street from the football stadium in the heart of campus.

When Nekabari was a sophomore, he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, one of four UGA houses in the Pan-Hellenic Council of historically black fraternities, known for the signature red and white canes they wield at campus step shows. In just two years, Nekabari has risen to the position of Polemarch, chapter president. As such, he is recognized when he walks across campus, tight polo accentuating an athletic build and tucked into immaculately pressed slacks, hugging folks and shaking hands and petting puppies all the way to the door of the Kappa Alpha Psi office. There, photos are taped to the walls—fraternity brothers, present and past, at step shows and participating in masked initiation ceremonies.

So what does he have planned for a Friday night? “I’m going to go out with my fraternity brothers,” he says with a knowing smile. “And wherever the night takes us . . . well . . . that’s college.”

6:46 p.m.

Welcome to New Sneakers Factory—what fourth-year Bryan Blaylock and his bandmates call the basement of their rented ranch, the one with the keg and the beer pong table out front, nestled in a wooded neighborhood just off South Milledge Avenue, one of Athens’s main arteries. Down here, among the Christmas lights, the amps, and the scattered beer and whiskey bottles, New Sneakers rehearses its contribution to a legendary Athens music scene that has produced national acts from R.E.M. to Drive-By Truckers. That tradition is part of the reason Bryan came here from Texas—along with the fact that he couldn’t get into USC in Los Angeles—and he is proud to be part of the latest generation of Athens musicians.

At the moment, only Bryan and drummer Thomas Avery (a guitar major at UGA) are present. Bass player Brian Stewart, a recent grad, got off work at 6 p.m. and should be here momentarily. Guitar player Hodges Berry, a senior, works till 10 and will miss practice. Bryan doesn’t have a job—his parents in Dallas are picking up the tab. But even he is not immune to the pressures of the impending postgrad world. “It used to be easy to sleep through class,” he says from the basement couch, feet bare, hair disheveled. “But now I take it seriously.” He points out that these are classes geared to his major, marketing with an emphasis in the music business. “These are the things I want to learn.”

But for now, New Sneakers is Bryan’s life. He spends his time practicing, performing, planning gigs and road trips, promoting, and patronizing local venues like Amici and the 40 Watt, as he was until 2:30 this morning.

Stewart arrives at 7:25, and Bryan slings his red Stratocaster over his shoulder and steps to the mic. The band has a gig tomorrow, a party for their fraternity. They rehearse original works—jangling, rootsy tunes with lyrics about deceitful girls and the futility of work in a song called “Work.” Even short a guitar, Bryan throws himself into the songs, swaying, smiling, and jumping up and down as if onstage and not in a musty cellar. After an encore of the Beatles’ “Come Together” around 9, the boys conclude a decidedly productive Friday night practice.

Bryan says he’ll probably just watch a movie. “I’ve been out every night this week, partied pretty hard,” he says, a bit hoarse. “I need to save myself for tomorrow.”

10:17 p.m.

In college it’s generally frowned upon to show up to a party before 11 p.m. Of course, for an alcohol-free Friday night at a notorious party school, one might think it unfashionable to show up at all.

But tonight there are 3,000 youths who don’t care.

Traffic is backed up for almost a mile on South Milledge Avenue. Running against the line of vehicles is a queue of people snaking toward the distant thump of techno coming from the wooded area beyond the road. Headlights bounce off neon duct tape in the partygoers’ clothes, from simple duct tape bow ties, armbands, and vests, to elaborate suits of gladiator armor and multi-colored-tape petal skirts. At the gate, uniformed police stand, arms folded, while a couple of tape-togaed Phi Slams high-five. A girl in a tutu is dancing up and down the line, screaming, “It’s so awesome!”

Elizabeth arrives at 10:20 with two friends. She is not decked out like the others; she wears a plain navy blue dress with a simple necklace made out of rolled-up white tape and paper clips. Still, she radiates a quiet enthusiasm as she scans the crowd.

Past the gate, frat brothers greet the hot mob with bottles of water and Fruit by the Foot before diverting the flow into a tunnel of black plastic. The passage narrows, packing shoulder to greasy shoulder, strangers’ breaths on sweat-drenched necks waiting in a windless bottleneck. And yet there is no pushing, no complaining, no scuffles over who cut in line. Just a palpable anticipation growing with the volume of the beat. Finally people trickle out of the chute and into a sea of moving flesh, bouncing, gyrating, hundreds of arms reaching toward the sky and a giant duct tape disco ball. Six thousand eyeballs turn to a DJ perched in a tree stand above the pit to see what comes next.

But Elizabeth stands still in the middle of the rolling mass, arms and eyes down, working the keypad on her phone. As the night wears on, she slips to the outskirts of the pit, the din subdued enough that she can conduct a phone call, holding a finger in her ear. Before long, a young man appears. His name is Nathan. He is a Phi Slam and a fellow Wesley Foundation leader. They listen as the entire crowd sings along to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” with one voice that overpowers the PA. They laugh as a boy is taped to the tree below the DJ and starts dancing. And yet at times, while they talk, the party seems to disappear altogether.

Follow Us