Stand or Get Out of the Way

Every day she does it. My wife Jane hits the phone, the squeaky wheel, keeping her rising temper in check, and patiently repeating different versions of the same story to the faceless, often feckless drones supported by my hard-earned money – Congressional aides and other lackeys who serve as a protective barrier between elected politicians and the people these politicians supposedly represent. Me and you, my wife and children. Us.

She tells them, pleads with them. Please don’t lump all Medicaid recipients in the same bundle. Families living with disability come from different backgrounds, have different needs, experiences, income levels, values, voting records, and intentions. Why punish everybody the same way? Why punish anyone who doesn’t deserve it? Why punish?

My wife knows that this is political showmanship and gamesmanship intertwined, and the real outcome of the Republican “health care” plan is unknown. We know what they’ve proposed or said or written, and we know that almost all of it was done in secret. But we don’t really know anything beyond the GOP’s misguided and rather dark intentions.

We have fears, we have concerns, we have expectations. But the bizarre scenario that Trump and his henchmen are shoving down the collective American throat will remain mostly a mystery until it comes out the other end. And then, all we’ll have to do is follow the stench and check for texture.

Here’s what we do know right now.

We know the impact that Medicaid waivers have on our son, Joe, and people like him and their families. We know that simply amputating waivers from Medicaid would not only take away services and goods that support people like Joe, but would also negatively impact people who provide those services and goods. Physicians, physical therapists, fiscal agents, technicians.

We know that all of the in-kind services Jane and I provide our son at home are saving the health care system a ton of money. Our friend Rebecca is a professional caregiver who comes to our house to take care of Joe, so Jane and I can go to work and pay bills and contribute to the economy and support our community.

And we know that my son’s pediatrician treats a clientele comprised of 60 percent Medicaid recipients. You think he’s happy with the shenanigans of these bullies who are minding the store?

The spare change Joe draws from Medicaid (which is secondary coverage – we also work to pay for our health insurance) also goes a long way toward giving him a decent quality of life. He can go to concerts and we can pay recreation league fees, and take him to movies, and buy gas for our gas-guzzling wheelchair-accessible van, and so on and so on. And those weekly visits we get from the UPS guy with boxes of feeding tubes or diapers or other equipment must have an economic multiplier effect.

Now, do I believe for a minute that the cruel bastards in office will put physicians out of business, or that they even want to? Honestly, I don’t think most of them have even considered the ripple effects of their kneejerk legislation. They are way more concerned with the insidious billionaires supporting their temporary fascist surge (perpetually unhappy and insatiably wealthy folks like the Mercers and Kochs).

I keep asking no one in particular, “why do these scavengers want to hamper my family’s ability to thrive?” And, “what do they have against people like my son?” But here’s the one that keeps puzzling me: “Why did so many people who rely on government-supported services like Medicaid vote for Trump?”

There are several possible answers to the last one, of course. Some of these folks have been rubes their entire life, eternal marks in the long con, the kind that fat-cat grifters like Trump can spot a mile off. Some probably have suicidal tendencies. Some are just plain angry and hate Hillary Clinton (and have no real reason why as they mumble, ‘Benghazi’ or ‘Email,’ lacking the ability to find one on a map, or use the other one to communicate). And a few are just dumber than a bag of hair and, bless ‘em, can’t read or comprehend words bigger or deeper than “ketchup.” These folks might have been told by their pastor to vote for St. Donald. It takes all kinds.

But, what really concerns me is the ability, or inability, of people with a conscience to keep up the fight. I read something on social media recently from a friend suggesting we just let it all go to hell – let the GOP’s proposed suicidal health care plan happen and stop fighting for the dumbasses mentioned above, the willfully uninformed who supported (or still support) Trump. The message, basically: Why waste time fighting for people who could care less?

Oh, how I wish that I could afford such a luxury!

I’m still idiotically and naively waiting for the day when the civil rights of people with disabilities is considered interesting enough or sexy enough or otherwise gratifying enough to become a cause celebre for many of my progressive-minded friends. If only I knew the secret to leveraging the collective white liberal guilt just in my own little world! Hey, I’m not minimizing the conversation and consternation over race in this country, or excusing myself from it. But still, you know, a brother’s gotta wonder. Especially today of all days – June 22 is the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. LC, which declared that people with disabilities have a civil right under the American with Disabilities Act to live and participate in their communities.

My family is incredibly lucky to be in the community we have chosen to live in. We are deeply grateful to the friends and strangers and friendly strangers who make up a community that has always had our back. If I could clone Sautee Nacoochee, I would (but you wouldn’t like it … inside joke).

The point is, we’re just one family that has been lucky, but we exist, nonetheless, on the edge of a cliff – and there are thousands of others in Georgia, millions across the country, who would be negatively impacted by the GOP health care plan, as it stands now (something so offensive, in my opinion, as to be unfit for a bathroom wall).

Some of these families give a damn, and some don’t, but we’re all circling the same drain. My family is not willing to slide down without a fight, regardless of whose company we’re keeping on the way. Stand (or sit) with us, or against us. If you can’t decide, then kindly get the hell out of the way and let the tired people fight our fight.

P.S. But we’d prefer you stand with us.

 

Goodbye, my friend

I wrote this a day after Col. Bruce Hampton died, for Atlanta magazine. I was still numb, working my way through tears and confusion over the loss of this man, who had become my friend over the last eight or nine years. He had many friends. Bruce collected people. He could guess your birthday the first time he met you, but that barely scratches the surface of his magic. The story below is slightly edited from the Atlanta magazine version, because this is my blog and I can say things here that I couldn’t or wouldn’t say there. 

 

I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. I didn’t really take him seriously. Shit, he didn’t want to be taken seriously. But then, “eventually” arrived.

Even when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of us — the 4,500 friends and fans in attendance, including the musicians around him, figured this was another one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.

“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”

It’s important to note here that Bruce, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B recording of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead rendering, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.

“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.

“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”

Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.

Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Bruce (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed, with intent, on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Bruce lowered himself to his knees, arms in front as if paying homage to the guitarist — another one of the musicians Bruce has fostered over the years, helping to find success and stardom.

A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Bruce could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself. At least, he could in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But even as he collapsed, he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.

He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Bruce had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.

“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” he warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”

After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”

Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.

“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”

On a typical Monday night, Bruce would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.

The stellar lineup included Chuck LeavellDerek TrucksSusan TedeschiJohn PopperTinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”

After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Bruce came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”

“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.

The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Johnny Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Bruce about five years ago and became the centerpiece at the Tuesday lunches Bruce organized. Johnny, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Bruce, who was waiting to go back on.

“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”

When it was all over, and word came to Johnny and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.

“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”

Piece of Mind

I should be working on that book, but I’ve got to focus on my job because, let’s face it, that’s what pays the bills. But then, if I want to remain relevant and employable as a writer, I’ve got to pitch some more ideas and be ready to turn them around quickly, and of course, there are the plays I’d like to finish, none of which takes any of the load off of my wife, or addresses her questions about the future …

… or helps my son’s hip subluxation and frequent discomfort, which only serve to limit his ability to move freely, which is due to his high tone, which isn’t going away and makes lifting and maneuvering him increasingly difficult as he grows, a condition that doesn’t help the problem with the headrest on his wheelchair, because my son hasn’t found a piece of equipment he can’t push to the limit.

Now, though, it’s a fever and he’s home from school, which means one of us, his mother or I, must stay tethered to home, because he can’t care for himself, that’s our gig, no matter how old he is or gets, our gig and we’re the bottom line; we are where the buck stops; we’re the first string and the back-up plan.

But in spite of everything, he has the most shining smile — not a dim-witted smile, nor a heroic smile, but a knowing smile, his inner-awareness of a bigger picture, a big joke, THE big joke, the reason we live, toil, and breathe; the reason we laugh and cry, all of the big reason or reasons. It is a contented smile, his grasp of the universe, of the joy umbrella, a smile that you work for, that he give freely, a winning smile, in spite of his challenges, including the hip issue, the high tone, the pain, the hurdles placed in his way by cold and distant elected people in expensive suits.

And if I was any kind of father, I would have invented a solution for all of the bad stuff and leveraged all of the good stuff, devoting more time and undivided attention to his needs and my wife’s needs and my daughter’s needs, and catching up on all of that sleep I’ve lost, or misplaced.

I would have written that wealth-generating bestseller, or invested wisely, or gotten into a different line of work, or played and won the lottery, instead of sitting here stewing over the book that I should be working on and the job I need to do and the anxiety I feel over my own fading ambitions and relevance as a storyteller.

If it feels like one foot is attached to the ground and the other is moving me in circles, it’s only because I don’t have more feet to get tangled up in all of the directions my thoughts are taking me in. But that’s just a feeling, a moment’s reflection, a piece of mind, and not the three-dimensional reality.

The reality is forward. Forward, with and/or without a plan, because the plan usually changes anyway and plans often are interchangeable when your choices are limited. Forward, through the hills and around the bends, because there always are hills and bends, which we may welcome or curse in the same exhalation. Forward, to see what happens next, or to make what happens next, and to be the happening.

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.”