Lights, Cameras, Kudzu

I was thinking about a departed friend, Lewis King, and dug up this old story that features Lewis prominently, as it talks about Deliverance and his involvement in all of that. The story focuses broadly on Georgia’s film industry, 10 years ago, when the estimated impact of the industry was about $450 million. Today it’s something like $7 billion!!!

 

Lewis King became the basis for one of the enduring characters in American literature and cinema because of an adventurous heart and his proficiency with a canoe paddle. But it was his skill with a ping-pong paddle that earned King big-screen immortality.

Deliverance author James Dickey used his river buddy King as the model for Lewis Medlock, the gritty outdoorsman played by Burt Reynolds in the film version of the novel about four Atlanta men on a deadly canoe trip. Then Dickey insisted to the filmmakers who descended on northeast Georgia that King needed to be involved in the movie.

“He told them something, probably that I was indispensable. He could exaggerate a bit,” says King, a longtime Atlanta real estate man who now lives in Sautee-Nacoochee, not far from the Deliverance setting.

“I wound up being called the ‘technical advisor,’” King says. “I got screen credit because I beat the director, John Boorman, in a ping-pong match. I was asking for $40,000, but he offered screen credit.

“Anyway, when I saw the film, there it was – my name, huge, on the big screen. I was shocked … and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who pays his gambling debts.’”

The Warner Brothers production filmed on location during the summer of 1971 in Rabun County, on the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers. The movie, starring Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and a host of northeast Georgia locals, was a smash with critics and audiences.

Deliverance, which made its theatrical debut 35 years ago, is one of those seminal films that becomes synonymous with a place and its people, thanks to Boorman’s stark portrayal of violent, backwoods mountain men. But, perhaps even more important, the film represents the launch of Georgia’s modern film industry.

“This office is a direct result of that little film,” says Bill Thompson, director of the Film, Video and Music Office in the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Ed Spivia was the state’s director of tourism at the time Deliverance rolled into north Georgia. He went up there, saw the large crew, the equipment, the money being spent. So he came back to Atlanta and told Governor Jimmy Carter, ‘Hey, there’s a vibrant business here.’”

Carter created the Georgia Film Office in 1973 and Hollywood kept coming back.

“There was a time when Georgia was number three in the nation in film and TV production,” says Thompson, who stepped into his job in November, after 25 years in the film, video and television domain. “We were out on the edge. But today, most states have some form of entertainment industry incentive. The competition is quite fierce.”

Thompson’s film mission is to push Georgia back to the edge, market the state to Hollywood producers while nurturing a growing indigenous community of independent filmmakers.

Blockbuster Business

Since the film office’s inception in 1973, according to state figures, about 550 major motion picture and television movies have filmed here, generating more than $4 billion for Georgia’s economy. Last year, the total production budget value in Georgia for movies, TV, commercials, music videos and video game development was $251.1 million for an overall economic impact of nearly $450 million.

But there is a sense that Georgia has slipped and may be missing out on a meatier role.

Scott Tigchelaar, president of RiverWood Studios in Senoia, refers to the 1980s and 1990s as “the good old days,” when a string of blockbuster hits were made in Georgia, including two Academy Award winners for best picture: Driving Miss Daisy (1989, filmed in Atlanta and Coweta County) and Forrest Gump (1993, Savannah).

“Georgia had a good heyday. That’s when we really built our film infrastructure,” says Tigchelaar, whose 120-acre studio complex, the largest in the state, is about 45 miles from downtown Atlanta with a list of hit client films that includes Fried Green Tomatoes and Sweet Home Alabama.

“Equipment companies, lighting, cameras, post-production houses were all springing up,” Tigchelaar says. “And it was cheaper to film in Georgia, much less than Los Angeles or New York. We have versatile terrain, good weather, easy access.

“Those were the primary reasons movies took off here. Then the film industry sort of went away. The Canadian dollar got cheap, Canada added tax incentives. And also, the film industry went offshore.”

Tigchelaar and Thompson both note the Cold Mountain irony – a Civil War film that takes place in the South, but was shot in Romania.

“Some states have been able to claw back into the picture by passing their own tax incentives for film production, and Georgia is following suit,” Tigchelaar says. “But time might be working against us, because other states with better incentives are building their infrastructure, and getting film after film. Right now, there are eight movies being filmed in Shreveport. I mean, Louisiana is cleaning everybody’s clock.”

Louisiana was number one last year in the trade publication, P3/Production Update, which ranks the top 10 places to shoot in the United States (outside of California, whose $34 billion film and TV industry in 2005 puts it in another universe).

Ranking criteria include financial incentives, infrastructure, support services, annual revenues generated by the film industry, level of difficulty for productions, crew base, cost of living and desire to return. New Mexico, Florida, New York, Hawaii and North Carolina were ranked ahead of number seven Georgia.

Georgia’s legislature passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act in 2005; it offers a 9 percent base tax credit and up to 17 percent in credits based on how much a production spends, where it’s spent and who gets hired. With just minutes left in this year’s session, the legislature increased the incentive package somewhat in a bill that was sent to the governor’s office.

“So much of the decision-making process is done before location scouts even hit the ground,” says Jay Self, director of the Savannah Film Commission. “They’ll budget a movie for location before seeing it based totally on the economics of the incentives.”

Savannah was a hotbed of major studio activity in the 1990s (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Legend of Bagger Vance, as well as Forrest Gump).

“We’re busy with smaller projects now, like independent films and catalog shoots. As for larger feature films, we just don’t seem to be economically competitive at this point,” Self says. “We are directly impacted by South Carolina. Our locations are pretty much the same, but their cash rebate program more than doubles Georgia’s incentives.”

Self offers up the recent example of Reinventing the Wheelers, the working title of a new TV series pilot starring Alyssa Milano that takes place in Savannah. It was shot in Charleston, SC. “They had a total budget of about $4.5 million,” he says. “Based on Georgia’s incentives at the time, they would have saved $300,000 if they filmed here. They wound up saving $680,000 in South Carolina.”

The Georgia Production Partnership (GPP), a nonprofit coalition of industry professionals, was established in 1998 to help nudge Georgia’s purse keepers in a direction that is favorable to film.

“Since our inception we’ve been consulted and have influenced a number of initiatives,” says Craig Miller, co-president of the organization and a filmmaker whose Craig Miller Productions turns out commercial and industrial films for a client list that includes Coca-Cola, UPS and The Weather Channel.

“Our goal is to provide a single voice to speak with government, or entities outside of the state who might have interest in shooting here, to promote filmmaking across Georgia and put us back in the forefront,” he says.

Coming Attractions

A group of about 15 filmmakers and Atlanta Film Festival programmers and jurors has boarded a purple bus on a bright morning for what Alison Fibben of the state film office calls, “a snapshot of what you can do in Georgia.”

The tour is being arranged by the film office and IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), the nonprofit organization that created and manages the annual Atlanta Film Festival, a 31-year-old event. The focus is clear – there is much to offer the filmmaker in Atlanta.

This is a tour of the filmmaking infrastructure. The first stop is PC&E (Production Consultants & Equipment), then on to some of the city’s other top equipment and production facilities, including CineFilm, Crawford Communications and, finally, the ultra-cool Lab 601, a post-production plant located in the old Mathis Dairy building on North Avenue.

The brainchild of brothers David and Peter Ballard, Lab 601 has all of the latest digital video and audio post-production tools in a setting that looks like a high-tech kindergarten. All day we have been looking at million dollar machinery that can convert film to digital, change the color of a person’s fingernails, create stunning visual and audio magic – but the highlight for the tour group seems to be the fire pole the Ballards have installed at Lab 601. Almost everyone slides down.

Next door to Lab 601 are the offices of Pop Films, an up-and-coming independent collective of former Georgia State film students whose movie, The Signal, was a hit at the Atlanta Film Festival after debuting at Sundance, where producers secured the filmmaker’s Holy Grail – a distribution deal that will put their horror film on 500 screens this fall.

Interest in the film has netted Pop Films a three-picture deal, says the state’s Bill Thompson, including a remake of the 1980 camp horror flick, Motel Hell, and a sequel to The Signal.

“These are a bunch of young guys who basically worked for free and made a smart movie that people in Hollywood are paying attention to,” Thompson says. “That’s the kind of indigenous little production company we’re going to see more of.”

The film program at Georgia State is loaded with potential. “We have a huge undergrad program, 400 to 500 majors right now,” says Kay Beck, who taught Thompson and has been something like a guru for GSU film students. Talk to The Signal’s guys, or the guys at Fake Wood Wallpaper, who produced another independent comedy-horror hit, Blood Car, and Dr. Beck’s name keeps coming up.

Beck is director of the Digital Arts and Entertain-ment Laboratory (DAEL) at Georgia State, which she describes as something like a business incubator, a smaller, arts and entertainment version of Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC).

“The growth and interest in film and video has skyrocketed, because of the democratization of production equipment,” Beck says. “We can all make movies now and edit them on our home computers. My generation – the boomers – wanted to write the great American novel. Now the desire is to make the great American movie. Visual communication has become the norm and everyone can be a filmmaker.”

It’s worth noting that the audience favorite at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival (150 films in the 10-day event) was a documentary, Darius Goes West, produced by amateur filmmakers.

The movie – brilliantly funny and poignant – chronicles the cross-country journey of Darius Weems, an Athens youth with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and his friends. Directed by Logan Smalley, a University of Georgia grad who plans to study special education at Harvard, the film has traveled the country, picking up awards at every festival where it is shown, with all proceeds benefiting muscular dystrophy research (www.dariusgoeswest.com).

Big Screen, Big Dreams

The old reliable behemoth of Georgia’s film and television industry is Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. That includes the Cartoon Network, Turner South, Turner Classic Movies, TNT, CNN. Turner remains the communications standard with its limitless supply of programming, but much of the original work, popular TV shows such as The Closer, are produced out of state.

Atlanta remains Georgia’s entertainment industry hub – a hip-hop vortex that attracts music video and commercial producers. But the city is increasing its image on the movie map thanks to Tyler Perry Studios (TPS), which promises to produce two feature films and about 100 television show episodes a year, much of it focused on African-American themes. This is the brainchild of writer/director Tyler Perry, whose hit films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Daddy’s Little Girls, were made in Atlanta.

“Atlanta has been our good luck charm, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Roger Bobb, supervising producer of a TV series being made at TPS, House of Payne. “We’re proving that you don’t have to be in Hollywood to shoot films and television series, that independent thinkers can get around the Hollywood system and create profitable, viable productions.”

Rainforest Films (Stomp the Yard) is another independent firm that is building Atlanta’s reputation as a solid location for African-American filmmakers, while BET (Black Entertainment Network) is producing its new sitcom, Somebodies, in Athens.

Down in tiny Colquitt, Georgia, Ralph Wilcox, a veteran black actor and producer, has launched the Southwest Georgia Film Commission, and a production studio.

“At first, the business and political community thought this whole notion had to be hatched by a con man,” says Wilcox, director of the commission and the Jokara-Micheaux Production Studio.

Thanks to a state grant and the assistance of the producers of Swamp Gravy, the popular story play that has become a Colquitt cultural industry, Wilcox is now teaching film to rural students – makeup, sound, lighting, set design, acting. Billy Bob Thornton is planning a film in the area, and Wilcox says he’s getting calls from Hollywood.

“Word is getting out, people are starting to take the area seriously,” Wilcox says. “My vision is to use the movie industry as a vehicle for economic development.”

In Senoia, Scott Tigchelaar is positioning his massive RiverWood Studios for its own brand of economic development. They’ve purchased land in Senoia with the intention of filling it with period-looking structures.

“Everything we build will look like it was built 120 years ago, to be consistent with the historic look of the town,” says Tigchelaar.

In the perfect script, a movie is the gift that keeps on giving. Tigchelaar envisions a live, work and shoot community – restaurants, office space and residential housing that will double as a live back lot for future RiverWood Studios projects in the years to come.

For the some of the local crew on Deliverance, the impact lasted decades. When James Dickey recruited his pal Lewis King to join the action in northeast Georgia, King in turn recruited Claude Terry and Payson Kennedy, two Atlanta canoeing buddies. They got paid $150 a day to serve as location experts, stunt doubles for the actors, or raft captains for a production team on troubled waters.

“Neither of us went home again,” says Dr. Terry, who purchased river gear from Warner Brothers following production, left his post as a med school professor at Emory and started Southeastern Expeditions.

Kennedy left his job as a librarian at Georgia Tech to start Nantahala Outdoor Center, which opened for business around the time Deliverance was premiering on the big screen. It didn’t hurt business.

“No, that movie was really good for business, for both of us,” Terry says. “That movie was a life changing experience.”

Be an American

If you voted for him, and have paid close attention, and you’re truly being honest with yourself, then you know by now that it was a mistake.

It’s kind of like the old Woody Allen movie, Bananas, when the rebel leader takes over the fictitious Latin American nation to fervent fanfare. Then, he starts rattling off a bunch of insane dicta (everyone must wear their underwear on the outside of their clothes, everyone under the age of 16 is now elevated to 16, and so on). The people who supported him start regretting it immediately.

Our country made a mistake. We elected an authoritarian narcissist whose administration has created more scandal in a month than the previous administration had in eight years. But we can live and learn. We can move on. We must.

If you care even a smidgen about the U.S. Constitution, about the brave men and women who built this country on a foundation of high-minded American ideals (such as those in the First Amendment), or about the future of this country and the planet, then please do your civic duty. Resist. Eventually, you’ve got to.

We don’t take kindly to dictators or despots or tyrants in this country. We take them down. “All men are created equal.” Remember that? It’s a beautiful concept and putting it into practice has been a worthwhile and sometimes bloody struggle. It’s a work in progress … progress, which implies we’re not supposed to go backwards.

We don’t build walls like dead East Germany. We don’t restrict a free press like dead Stalinist Russia. We don’t bully other nations into mindless submission like dead Ancient Rome. Our country? We’re not an empire, and we’re not dead, in spite of what he and his well-paid shills say (loudly and often, as if that will give their lies the breath of truth). No, here in America, the land of the free and home of the brave, we’re very much alive.

So, be involved and be vocal, or don’t be. Be dispassionate and disengaged, smugly critical of those who are passionate and engaged. Or be silly and make light and whistle in the dark. Or be whatever you gotta be for now. For now.

But please, also stay as focused as you can, and listen with an honest, common-sensical ear, so that when 2018 comes around, you can make some better choices — be they Democrat or Republican or something else — in the voting booth.

Don’t give in to manufactured fear. Love your country. Don’t be a Russian colonist, and please don’t be a reality show American. Be a real American.

The Worst and Best Thanksgiving

What began as the worst Thanksgiving of my life became what might have been the best.

It was four years ago, 2012. You remember, the end of the world. A year earlier I’d written a song about it with the hook, “you can stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, 2012’s just around the corner and the shit’s about to fly, don’t get no second chances, might as well enjoy the ride, before ya stick your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye …” Yeah, that year.

We had a lot planned for November. It was my wife’s 50th birthday on Nov. 8. We weren’t even thinking about Thanksgiving yet. We were gonna have a big party. Our daughter Samantha and her husband Eric had flown into town. So had my brother Steve. I’d secretly put together a video of 50 people delivering happy birthday messages to Jane, some of them were folks she hadn’t seen in decades – her uncle in England, childhood friends and so forth. This was going to be her surprise gift before everything went to hell and we nearly lost our son.

The day before her birthday, Joe started running a high fever. Then he started coughing. Then he was throwing up something ugly and black. I found a huge wound on the back of his shoulder that had been the size of a small pimple the day before. Staph infection. It put him in the hospital for an entire month, Scottish Rite. At one point, the docs had to induce coma for a couple of days, partly because my boy couldn’t relax enough to be probably intubated. Truly wretched times.

Every night, one of us slept in his room (Mom, typically), and the other one had to find different arrangements. Usually, this meant getting your name on “the list” for a parent’s guest room at Scottish Rite. These were, basically, little rooms about the size of a walk-in closet with a bed. There was competition for these rooms because there always seemed to be more dads than there were rooms available. So, I spent some nights sleeping out in our van.

The night before Thanksgiving, though, was kind of cold and I decided to “spoil” myself by staying in a nearby hotel. On my way to the hotel, I was rear-ended. Damaged the back of our handicap-accessible van (our only means of road travel with Joe). I was already a raw nerve, so when I got out of the van to talk to the guy who hit me, I was not in a good mood. Didn’t matter that the dude was the size of a defensive end, I was in his face. To his grace and credit, he was calm and apologetic and hundreds of miles from home. We exchanged information and I went to my hotel room and probably cried, weeks of helpless frustration pouring out in curses and other ugly lamentations.

Hope and gratitude were in short supply the next morning. But I got to Scottish Rite early for another day in the house of healing, where the hospital staff had big things planned for their depressed and depressing charges. Good, kind people (businesses, but businesses are made up of people) had donated a bunch of roasted turkeys and all of the rest, and there was going to be a Thanksgiving dinner on our floor. Then came the good news that Joe was getting moved from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to a regular room. There’s your hope, running point for the gratitude to come.

Then our wonderful, dearest and loveliest of friends, Tommy and Terri, on their way back home to Sautee Nacoochee from South Georgia, stopped by for a visit. T and T are like our siblings from other mothers. They’ve known Joe since he was a tyke and always have treated him with love and respect and they’d been missing him, so here they were, and here they stayed, because Tommy got pressed into service.

My overriding memory of that Thanksgiving is of Tommy skillfully tearing into those turkeys, using whatever tools were available – plastic knives and forks mainly, slicing the birds, prepping and presenting them for the tired, hungry hordes. We went through a dozen of those birds. Slicing, cutting, occasionally ripping, little bits of meat flying like sawdust. Nurses brought in trays and pots and buckets of food, jugs of tea. We feasted together in Joe’s new hospital room.

I’ve always loved this ridiculous holiday marked by overindulgence and sappy emotions, mostly because of whom it brought together – mom and dad and brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles and aunts by the dozen, small armies of mostly Italians. Family. Thanksgiving. Let it be.

I’ve got 50 memories of 50 meals, of arguing over the drumstick, of stuffed mushrooms and stuffed tummies, of dark beer and football games, of family drama, of stories from my father about how he had managed to take down the monster turkey we were now consuming (a bird from some grocery store freezer, but he always claimed it had been stalking the woods near our house, six-feet tall at the shoulders). Lots of Thanksgiving memories, grainy, lovely, comfortable.

But that year at Scottish Rite, the least comfortable Thanksgiving, with my son on the mend after lurching toward the edge, my wife and I hallow-eyed but happy, loving friends pitching in around a hospital break-room for a hasty feast … it’s a scene I’d rather not repeat, but one I never want to forget. It was the most heartfelt giving and sharing of thanks I can remember.

The Two Lives of Bernard Taylor

This was published in Georgia Super Lawyers, March 2008. I recently had the opportunity to revisit Mr. Taylor for another story, but I was reminded of this story, one of my favorites in 10 years of writing for the Super Lawyers folks. This man’s life could be a good movie.

 

The scene unfolds at sudden-death speed.

Bernard Taylor, an undercover cop in 1970s Detroit, enters a darkened house with a shotgun to make a bust. From the front room a rifle is fired, but—as will be discovered later—gunpowder pulverizes the bullet in the chamber and the old .22 simply spits tiny bits of lead and powder off the bill of Taylor’s cap and into his eye. Taylor, hardly blinking, levels his shotgun. At that moment, he hears children’s voices coming from the gloom behind the shooter.

“I didn’t shoot,” says Taylor, now a partner at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, where for the past 25 years he’s worked as a trial lawyer. “I didn’t want to take a chance on hitting those kids. So I made the guy drop his gun and surrender. I was really fortunate. It could have been a disaster.” As it turned out, he was named police officer of the year.

“Funny how life is,” he adds.

Yeah, funny. Also sad, thrilling, horrifying—Taylor’s life would make a hell of a movie: How an African-American foster child, whose mother went to prison for reasons he can’t or won’t recall, grows up to become an undercover narcotics detective, putting away drug kingpins and corrupt cops, then leaves the force to become a defense attorney working commercial litigation, products liability and toxic tort lawsuits. Someone call Sidney Lumet.

But Taylor, who considers himself a movie buff (Doctor Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey are his favorites), isn’t comfortable talking about the first half of his life. At the same time, he’s too polite to refuse a writer’s nagging questions.

“My colleagues know that I was a police officer, they know I worked undercover, but I never say much to them about it,” he says.

Others are less reticent.

“BT was a selfless and heroic cop, and I was glad he got out when he did, because I truly believe he would have been killed,” says Justin Ravitz, an avowed Marxist who became a legendary criminal court judge in Detroit. “BT literally was the Frank Serpico of the Detroit Police Department.”

Serpico, the detective who exposed rampant corruption in the New York police department, became famous after the release of the 1973 film Serpico starring Al Pacino. Taylor has achieved his fame as a lawyer.

He’s successfully represented corporate giants, chaired his firm’s products liability group and management committee, and in 2006, was named a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was asked to deliver an acceptance speech on behalf of all inductees, including John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A model citizen who volunteers for UNICEF and is president of the Dekalb County chapter of 100 Black Men of America, Taylor is the father of three daughters and one son: Bernard Taylor II, a trial lawyer in Chicago.

Taylor has distanced himself from what he calls “old demons”; but when colleagues talk about Taylor’s renowned courtroom unflappability, they inevitably bring up his past.

“Given Bernard’s history, it’s almost cheating when it comes to what he brings to the table,” says Gino Brogdon, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge and former Alston & Bird attorney, who recently helped launch Brogdon, Davis & Adams in Atlanta.

“Here is a guy who was an undercover cop in the ’70s. If you weren’t prepared doing the stuff he did, you die. It wasn’t pretty. He’s seen some terrible things—things that most of us would not be able to withstand mentally. He’s had the cold steel of a weapon pressed against his temple. He’s been shot.

“So there is nothing you can do in a courtroom to ruffle his feathers. Nothing.”

Brogdon didn’t know Taylor the cop, but he considers Taylor the lawyer his best friend and mentor, and compares him to Walter Payton, the late NFL running back.

“Payton had a workout that very few people could withstand, but everybody appreciated his beauty on Sunday,” Brogdon says. “Bernard is the Payton of trial work. He wins not only because of his superior talent in the courtroom, but because he works harder in the dark than any lawyer who ever picked up a briefcase.”

“I think it’s partly his early life training as a police officer,” adds Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, a one-time Alston & Bird colleague. “But it’s his character that allowed him to handle the sort of undercover work he was doing. He once told me—one of the few times he’s been willing to talk about it—that when he was working undercover he stumbled on things that just made him want to throw up. But it never made him unsteady.”

It did, however, make him leave his hometown.

“Detroit was a wonderful place to live in the 1950s,” Taylor remembers. “We had about 1.6 million people living there [and] it was very ethnically diverse. I grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that was right next to a Polish-American neighborhood, which was right next to a German neighborhood, which was next to an Italian neighborhood, and so on.”

As a teen, he lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and went to a predominantly Jewish school: Mumford High, made famous by the T-shirt Eddie Murphy later wore in Beverly Hills Cop.

Taylor, 58, spent the first seven years of his life in foster care before moving in with his grandmother, who had already raised 14 kids. Later, his aunt, Dorothy Perkins, took care of him. “[She was] the first person who showed me that I could do something with my life if I wanted to,” he says.

He wanted to be a cop.

“I think it was my mother’s situation that caused me to go out and do something in law enforcement,” says Taylor.

After graduating from the academy, Taylor joined the police department in 1970. It was a dangerous time: 26 Detroit police officers were killed while on duty during the 1970s.

“It was not unusual for a policeman a month to be killed during some stretches,” Taylor says. “That was a different era. It was rough, and the reason it was rough was because of narcotics—specifically, because of heroin. A few of us wanted to get involved to try and solve the problem.”

He was a patrolman for less than a year before volunteering to work undercover, cooperating with federal officers on special assignments.

“Some of the work I did was just hanging out in the streets, figuring out where the dope houses were, figuring out ways to get known in the community, ingratiating yourself to whoever was running the dope house, then buying drugs and making busts.”

Taylor and his comrades would spend a long time, sometimes up to a year, studying an organization, developing trust, joining the gang, then taking it down.

“You tried to infiltrate the organization, and typically that was through a confidential informant of some kind,” Taylor says. “You’d be part of the organization for six months to a year maybe. Most of the time, for me, I played the part of someone who had my own organization, or who was financing an organization. I was a buyer. But part of the process meant you socialized a lot, you’d live in the area. This was deep cover.”

Posing as a friendly buyer helped Taylor avoid having to sample the drugs. “Now, did I ever end up with a contact high from marijuana smoke? Oh yeah, because that was everywhere,” Taylor says.

It wasn’t easy for all of the obvious reasons. “The kind of work I was doing, you have to befriend people knowing that you’re lying to them,” Taylor says. “That was tough.”

He recalls two incidents where informants were murdered. Taylor had his own share of close calls, too.

“There was this one time when my cover [as an out-of-town drug dealer] was almost blown. I was going to meet with a substantial drug wholesaler who lived in the suburbs but wanted to meet me in the Detroit projects,” Taylor remembers.

“I arrived in a cab, supposedly coming from the airport. For whatever reason, the guy who was supposed to drive the cab didn’t make it and the guy they substituted, a federal agent, jumped in the cab wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t look like a cab driver. The guy I was meeting said he was uncomfortable with the driver. The implication was, they were going to deal with me harshly if the driver didn’t move on.”

The dealer held a gun to Taylor’s head and threatened to shoot if the cabbie didn’t leave. Taylor stayed in character and paid the driver, who left. The investigation went on. The dealer was later arrested.

After working a few years as an undercover detective, Taylor became the supervisor of a high-stakes deep cover operation, in which—a la The Departed—undercover candidates were plucked from the police academy before actually entering the officer rolls.

The Covert Operations Group was created to fight the city’s heroin epidemic while ferreting out police corruption. It worked closely with internal affairs.

“This was serious, dangerous work,” Taylor says, “because we were uncovering information that could be threatening to some important people. We operated without policemen or the people on the street knowing what we were doing.”

“You didn’t know who to trust,” says Dr. Isaiah ‘Ike’ McKinnon, an internal affairs officer who recruited Taylor to join an investigation that led to the top of Detroit’s political ladder—including Willie Clyde Volsan, brother-in-law of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

Only a handful of people were supposed to know about the Covert Operations Group—Taylor, McKinnon, the officers working deep cover, and chief of police William Hart, who controlled the money undercover cops used to buy drugs—but, McKinnon says, “I can recall reporting everything that was part of my investigation to a boss who I assumed was a good person, only to find out he was reporting everything I gave him to the ultimate source: the mayor.”

McKinnon, now a professor of education and human services at the University of Detroit Mercy, adds, “There were so many offshoots in that investigation. It was like a hand with many fingers, each one pointing in a different direction. Then you climb up to the arm and find out that it’s controlling different parts of each finger. It was scary.”

Safety within and without the department was a constant concern. Ravitz, the criminal court judge who helped initiate the operation, saw how it was getting to Taylor.

“As he got higher and higher [in the investigation] I could see that he was clearly nervous,” Ravitz says. “I knew that the third floor of the department, the chief’s floor, had been stopping their support. It was difficult to get money to buy narcotics. The third floor was pulling back, and we were getting suspicious.”

As a result of the investigation, James Gulley, a Detroit businessman, was arrested in 1978 with three pounds of heroin and received a life sentence. He died in prison.

But in the end there were too many roadblocks within the department, and Taylor left in 1979; McKinnon followed in 1984.

In 1991, Hart, the police chief under whom Taylor and McKinnon worked, was indicted for stealing $2.6 million from the department’s drug enforcement fund. The following year, Volsan was arrested while introducing corrupt cops to FBI agents posing as drug dealers, and 11 police officers were charged with protecting drug dealers and money launderers.

Taylor doesn’t want to speculate or remark on whether these officers were targeted when he was a cop. Those files are not part of his reading material these days. He simply says, “There was always the suspicion that it went pretty high in the department.”

When Taylor left the police department in 1979, he left it completely, but he left it with a plan. While a cop he earned an undergraduate degree from Wayne State University, and, partly because of a childhood admiration for Thurgood Marshall, and partly because of the encouragement of Ravitz, he went into law.

“I remember an incident in Detroit where some policemen went into a motel and allegedly killed a bunch of people,” Taylor says. “This might have been before I was a police officer. Anyway, I went to the courtroom and observed the lawyers defending these officers. They were so effective. I realized that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And to show you how naïve I was, I didn’t know there was any other kind.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1982, he took a job with Jones, Bird and Howell (later Alston & Bird) in Atlanta. He’s been a trial lawyer from day one.

He rarely speaks to anyone from his police days, including his old mentor Ravitz (who died suddenly as we were going to press). McKinnon, his former partner, who later became police chief, expressed surprise and joy that Taylor has done so well, so far away from Detroit. The two former cops haven’t been in contact for years, and Taylor rarely gets back to his hometown. The last time was three years ago.

“I probably could have practiced law in Detroit, but there’s a lot of pain there,” Taylor says. “I didn’t think it would be healthy for me, personally, to go back.”

He may not want to go back, but his mind will replay the scenes from that other life.

“When I look back, it plays like a movie. It doesn’t look like something I did,” he says.

“There are times when I sit in this office and look at all of the stuff going on around me, and I realize how different my life has been from the many people I interact with on a daily basis. And I find it hard to believe I actually lived that life.”

 

Liquid Gold

This story was published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I was reminded of this story while reading a current (and expertly reported/written) piece on the same topic, by Max Blau of Atlanta magazine. After reading Max’s excellent article and then this older one, it occurred to me that, while Georgia has more microbreweries than it did eight years ago (yay), little else has changed regarding the state’s beer distribution laws (boo). Basically, craft brewers in Georgia are still in the same boat — unfortunately, it’s nothing like the boat that James Oglethorpe’s brewer rode in.

 

The path to enlightenment for Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney began with 10 cases of liquid gold. The two were students at the University of Colorado at the time, studying environmental conservation and accounting, and working part time at a Boulder brewery.

“After our first day on the job, we came back to the house, to our four other roommates, and we had all this beer. Their eyes got that big,” Bensch says, motioning wide with his hands, a bottle of Sweetwater IPA hanging casually between thumb and forefinger. “That’s when we started to find out how cool it was to have free beer.”

Their cars started running better, professors were nicer than usual, delivery guys from the Chinese restaurant were happy to deal food for beer. Bensch and McNerney progressed in the thriving Colorado craft-brewing scene, working their way through college, and life was good.

“Then you come to the realization that college is about over and you have to do something with yourself. As we’re sitting there having that conversation, we’re drinking beer and we say, ‘Hey, we’ll follow through with this,’” Bensch says, nodding to the cold one in his hand. “We made a pact with each other: Learn as much as we can over the next few years and open our own brewery.”

Since then, a lot of beer, brain cells, blood and sweat have gone into the effort, says Bensch, whose business card identifies him as the Big Kahuna at Sweetwater Brewing Company, the Atlanta based brewery he and brewmaster McNerney launched 11 years ago.

Sweetwater is a craft brewery, and part of the fastest growing segment of the $97 billion U.S. beer industry (and the alcoholic beverage market in general). Craft beers, or microbrews, accounted for $5.7 billion in sales last year. Distinguished by higher quality all-malt beers brewed to traditional standards, the craft brewing industry grew by 12 percent last year while sales of domestic non-craft brews (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, etc.) and imports inched upwards a sluggish 1.4 percent.

And the Southeast is the fastest growing region in craft beer sales with a 33.9 percent increase last year. Much of that income bolstered distant economies, but the industry that started and flourished in the West and Northeast is gaining a tentative foothold in parts of the South, most notably North Carolina, which has a dozen microbreweries and about twice as many brewpubs (restaurants that brew their own beer).

The United States is home to 1,449 breweries according to the Brewer’s Association; of those 1,406 are considered craft breweries (this includes brewpubs). Georgia has three award-winning craft brewers – Sweetwater, Atlanta Brewing Company and Terrapin Beer Company (Athens), and a dozen brewpubs scattered across the state. These are the survivors in a state where strict regulatory challenges are threatening the growth of this niche industry. Three Georgia companies – Dogwood Brewing Company, Old Savannah Brewing Company and Zuma Brewing – have closed over the past four years.

“We’re lucky to still have three great microbreweries in Georgia, each with its own distinct personality,” says Owen Ogletree, a nationally certified beer judge who founded the Classic City Brew Fest in Athens and writes about beer for a number of publications.

“But Portland, Oregon, has more breweries than we have in the entire Southeast. Out West, in places like Oregon, California and Colorado, they’re encouraging these small, local breweries to succeed. They’re generating interest in local flavors and culture, and enhancing local economies. That’s just not happening in Georgia yet.”

Oddly enough, it was a Georgian who is largely responsible for opening the craft beer taps almost 30 years ago. President Jimmy Carter signed the law legalizing homebrewing in February 1979 and started a chain reaction.

The law allows an individual (21 and over) to brew up to 100 gallons a year for personal use (200 gallons per household). By the 1980s, a wave of artisan homebrewers started opening commercial breweries and brewpubs, and the beer geeks have been smiling ever since.

The Art Of Beer

Brian “Spike” Buckowski always has loved beer, but he became a brewmaster because he hates wearing suits and ties, can dance only to the beat of some weird internal drummer and does not play well with others. Typical artist.

“He really does have the magic touch,” says Dave Blanchard, co-owner of The Brick Store Pub in Decatur. “When Spike makes something, you know it’s going to be very good. He’s really made a name for Terrapin in beer nerd circles.”

Buckowski and John Cochran met while working at Atlanta Brewing Company in 1997. One day, after getting reamed out by the boss (the brewery is under different ownership now) for ditching work to attend the Atlanta Braves home opener, they decided to start their own company. The prevailing sentiment was, “that’ll show him.”

“I always knew I was going to do something for myself,” Buckowski says. “My dad is an electrician who owns his own business, and he always taught me that if you get up every day and love your job, your life is pretty much set. And I absolutely love what I do.”

So do legions of beer drinkers. The first batches of Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale were brewed at Dogwood in 2002 and sold only on tap in Athens. The product was introduced at the Classic City Brew Fest in April that year and six months later won a gold medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival.

“After bottling it and sending it out for judging in Denver, we couldn’t afford to go the festival ourselves,” Buckowski says. “When we got the phone call telling us we won, it was like, we’ve really got to do something with this now.”

Based in Athens from the start (Cochran is a UGA grad), they made 163 barrels that first year (a barrel equals 31 gallons, or two kegs). The next year they started brewing under contract at Frederick Brewing Company in Maryland. Last year they produced about 9,000 barrels and realized their dream of opening their own brewery, signing a lease in July on a 45,000-square-foot facility just outside downtown Athens. But the brewery sat idle until December, when the state finally granted them a brewing license.

“I don’t know if they were dragging their feet or what,” Buckowski says. “But we’d submit the paperwork and they’d say, ‘OK, now you need this, this and this.’ We’d do that, that and that, submit it again, then they’d go, ‘OK, and now you need this, this and this.’ It went on like that, and meanwhile we’re paying for this building.”

While Cochran has been running point as Terrapin’s president, Buckowski has added new styles to the year-round roster (Golden Ale and India Brown Ale), and introduced the popular, higher-alcohol, seasonal Monster Beer series (such as Big Hoppy Monster and Wake-n-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout).

“We’re considering making that a year-round project,” Cochran says, clutching a 22-ounce bottle of Buckowski’s new invention, Hop Shortage, the first beer in a limited edition series called Side Project.

The beer name reflects the reality – there is a worldwide hop shortage and it’s preventing smaller craft brewers from acquiring their aromatic the key ingredient. Hop Shortage is an ironic name – it’s a particularly hoppy beer, Buckowski’s sardonic, tasty sense of humor in a bottle. The Terrapin boys expect the hop situation to improve, but want to continue growing its limited “Side Project” editions.

“This is where the industry is going, this is what craft brewing is about, the experiment. We want to be on the forefront of that, so we’re going to start producing random, crazy beer styles and see what people think of them.”

Buckowski is a Grateful Dead freak who decided to move to Georgia after scoring tickets to three consecutive Dead shows in Atlanta one week in 1992. “I also got tickets to see Rush that week,” he says. “I was sold.”

They named the company after the Dead’s famous Terrapin Station album. And they hired Richard Biffle, the artist who created the Dead’s album covers, to design their colorful turtle logo labels.

Strange Brew

Like Buckowski, the Sweetwater boys found Atlanta by accident.

“We were down in Charleston helping some guys open up a brewpub, on a consulting basis,” Bensch says. “All of my possessions were in my truck, including my dog. This was during the blizzard of 1995, and we were just cruising around the Southeast looking for a spot.

“Got here right before the Olympics and there was such a good buzz in Atlanta, the whole world was watching the city. The beers being made here at the time were a completely different style from what we wanted to make, and we felt like, if we’re gonna roll the dice and take a chance on building something, this was the right place to do it.”

They brewed their first batch on April 20, 1997, and ever since, Sweetwater 420 has been the company’s popular signature beer. They have won national and international medals for several styles, including a gold for best small brewery in the 2002 Great American Beer Festival.

Today, Sweetwater, which has always brewed its own beer, is Georgia’s largest craft brewery, producing more than 45,000 barrels in 2007. By comparison, Georgia’s two mega-breweries (Miller has a plant in Albany, Anheuser-Busch in Cartersville) produce about 15 million barrels a year between them.

In March Sweetwater increased production capacity, ripping the roof off its Midtown Atlanta brewery to install eight additional tanks.

“That will be our final expansion here,” Bensch says. It’s a potentially ominous statement for fans of Sweetwater’s popular brewery tours and tastings. If the company outgrows its current digs, staying in Georgia might not be an option. “This is a tough place to be in the beer business. That’s why there are only three of us.”

Georgia’s microbreweries are hamstrung in several ways.

Like almost every other state, Georgia is tied to a three-tier system, in which beer must go from the producer (brewer) to a wholesaler (distributor) before reaching the bar-tap or store shelf (retailer). It’s the same basic structure that’s been in place since Prohibition was repealed.

Some states allow a producer to own two tiers in this system. Brewpubs are an example – retail establishments that make the beer and sell it to customers of their establishment. Most states have tweaked the law enough to allow craft brewers the option to sell beer directly to customers who visit or tour their facilities. It’s been a great boon for the tourist industries in those states, “those” being the operative word, because in Georgia, state law forbids brewers from selling directly to their visitors.

“I was up at Highland Brewing in North Carolina, where they were making a special release, and you should have seen the people, about 200 of them, lined up out the door to buy beer,” Cochran says.

Large craft breweries such as California’s Sierra Nevada may have taprooms and restaurants on site, enhancing the tourism experience. In Georgia, breweries can’t have brewpubs on site, and brewpubs can’t sell their beer off restaurant premises. Also, Georgia has tough franchise laws – once a brewer hooks up with a distributor, getting out of the deal is difficult, ultimately requiring state approval.

In Georgia, it is illegal for brewers to pour their own products at festivals, or any event outside the brewery – but they can travel to another state and do it. And a year ago, the Georgia Department of Revenue started proposing new rules to limit the amount of beer visitors may drink at brewery tasting tours, the favored and most affordable marketing tool for microbreweries, most of which can’t afford large advertising campaigns.

“The biggest challenge facing craft breweries in this state is the regulatory environment,” says Crawford Moran, brewmaster at Five Seasons Brewing in Alpharetta. Moran knows the sting – he was the owner of Dogwood Brewing Company.

“There’s no good reason why a small, local brewery shouldn’t be able to self-distribute, up to a certain point. No good reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to have a restaurant or pub attached. Those are the things that help small companies grow into larger companies.”

So, a state like Colorado, with a more supportive environment for brewers, has half the population of Georgia with about 15 times as many microbreweries.

“They produce over $500 million in craft brews in eastern Colorado alone,” notes Robert Budd, president of Atlanta Brewing Company, which fell into the hands of new owners several years ago and won its first gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival last year for its Red Brick Blonde ale. This year they added a gold (for Red Brick Barrell Select) and a bronze (for Numbers Ale) at the World Beer Cup in San Diego.

Budd envisions a beer tourism market not unlike the one fermenting in North Georgia wine country. This year the legislature boosted the wineries’ business potential, introducing and approving one bill that allows internet wine sales and another permitting wineries that have tasting rooms or restaurants to serve other alcoholic beverages, including beer. Budd says he can’t figure out why Georgia’s homegrown craft breweries were left out.

“That totally shocks me,” he says. “This is a green industry, a sustainable industry, a tourism industry that produces more tax per dollar of profit than any other industry. I think that we, Sweetwater and Terrapin are at the forefront of a Georgia industry with tremendous economic development potential.”

And he thinks that history may be on his side.

“You know, the South has been making beer for at least 300 years. When Oglethorpe landed in Georgia, his brewer was on the boat.”

 

Mighty Joe at the Bat

 

Grillo at the bat

 

The outlook was uncertain for the Heroes squad that day:

The score was thirty-thirty with one inning left to play,

And when big Craig singled to left, and Ally did it too,

Two ducks were on the pond for Joe, whose work here wasn’t through.

 

Joe grabbed a bat that fit his grip, and rolled up to the plate;

His steely look of confidence foretold the pitcher’s fate;

He stared the hurler up and down, and held his bat up high,

The pitch came in, Joe took a swing, and hit a mighty fly.

 

The pitcher’s spirits plummeted as the ball disappeared;

It sailed right past a jetliner into the stratosphere,

Then into orbit, toward the moon, the ball went into space,

Outward bound, toward Jupiter, as Joe rolled to first base.

 

The crowd went nuts as Joe took second, then glided into third,

The ball flew right past Saturn’s rings (at least, that’s what I heard).

As Joe crossed home triumphantly (his wheels had touched them all),

A groan swept through the ballpark as the umpire cried, “foul ball!”

My Son Is

Random thoughts on the most important boy that I know in the waning weeks of Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month:

My son is a constant loop in my thought track.

My son is the boy you can hear from outside the house or the room, making sounds that seem to have no form.

My son is quiet, sometimes for hours.

My son spends most of his time inside, in his wheelchair or on the floor, watching movies, listening to music or stories, making fancy moves, playing with me.

My son is the boy with clenched hands, held up in the air as if in protest, tight hands that close like vice grips because the part of his brain that says “let go” is on sabbatical.

My son stands out in a crowd even if he can’t stand by himself.

My son was diagnosed as an infant with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, and if you’re sincerely interested in learning more about that, there’s plenty of great information on the Internet that you should read.

My son is fine, and that’s exactly what I’ll say when you ask, “what’s wrong with him?”

My son’s diagnosis doesn’t define who he is; everyone is different and should be valued for their individuality, including people diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy.

My son sometimes has scratches on his smooth and brilliant face, some of them fading, some of them fresh, because he can’t quite control his hands, and because it’s difficult to closely trim his fingernails, what with those clenched hands.

My son has a smile with no strings attached, a gigantic smile for you and especially for me whenever I enter his space, because my son, inexplicably, hasn’t tired of his old man yet.

My son can walk, with help, and for those who are willing to help, it’s time well spent. In fact, you might find yourself dancing with him once you get him up and going.

My son laughs at fart sounds and roughhousing and curse words, and at other people’s laughter, because he wants in on the joke, expects to be in on the joke, in spite of a world that mostly considers him an afterthought.

My son is a minority within a minority, but he doesn’t have many advocates crying out for his civil and human rights.

My son may not deserve your love, but he deserves your respect.

My son and his parents live life on the brink, and the brink is consistently being redefined or moved.

My son loves super heroes and music, especially music.

My son has good taste in music, but is patient enough to listen when I play it, and encourages me by singing along to whatever tune I happen to be scratching at, especially Ripple. He loves Ripple.

My son sings out loud in wordless joy, smiling at his mother’s silly dancing, always up for a live show, always unabashed in his appreciation.

My son loves an adventure, especially if it includes a fast, bumpy ride that puts the wind in his face, which inevitably elicits delighted squeals and screams.

My son cries when I sneeze, almost always, tears and everything, but he isn’t a baby, and if you respect him, you won’t speak to him like one. He is quirky.

My son is brave, proud, strong and sincere.

My son is social, and friendly, and forgiving, and honest, and damaged, and perfect.

My son is a troublemaker, sometimes frustrating, sometimes scary, and very funny.

My son is a work in progress, like your son.

My son is a teacher.

My son is wonderful company, and his company is a gift that few people seem to want or understand, but it is a gift that I can’t seem to get enough of.

My son is loved, fiercely.

My son has very few friends his own age. He doesn’t have many visitors. But if he gets lonely, he doesn’t show it, at least not in ways we understand yet.

My son always says please and thank you, without using those words.

My son hates long drives. For now.

My son is approachable and accepting and loves your company, if you’re willing to share it, and if you really want to know him or be with him, he is within reach, and he’s totally worth the effort.

My son can be a tough taskmaster. He doesn’t give his parents any days off, just like other sons.

My son is unique.

My son needs me, and his needs are ever-changing, and the older he gets, the more he needs me, and the more I grow.

My son would be left behind if it were not for a handful of people who are physically capable and otherwise compelled to care for him, and the bigger he gets, the harder it is to care for him, and the easier it is to leave him behind.

My son will never be left behind as long as I’m alive.

My son is a constant loop in my thought track, and I don’t plan on pressing the stop button, because he’s my son.