South Carolina is contoured like a playing card bent at the upper left corner. This is where I was raised, up here on the K on the suicide king, above his coat of arms, tucked into to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But after the new year put 1985 to rest, I packed up my shit and headed toward the Lowcountry.
This is the part of the South that pop culture loves to romanticize: the swamps, Spanish moss, and mansions; the palmettos and the gators. This is Pat Conroy country, Tara, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The playing card is flat down here, sandy and humid.
I knew I was nearing the state line when the fireworks stands popped up like technicolor mushrooms along the interstate: last chance to blow off my fingers before entering Georgia. And then I was free of South Carolina’s gravity, off of the interstate connecting Miami to the Canadian border and barreling down a two-lane highway toward the poor man’s Charleston.
In 1986 the smell of Savannah arrived long before the sight – the strong methane odor of swamp gas and pulp mills. And then the steel skeleton rose from the horizon, the Talmadge Bridge, the biggest trestle bridge I’d ever seen, with its grated deck that made tires sing. Fishermen and alligators lurked around its pilings.
The bridge is the only climb in that flat land, arching over the Savannah River. To my left River Street strobed through the bridge’s steel girders with its bars, hotels, and junk shops hustling money from drunken tourists bedazzled by its cobblestones and red bricks.
Down the Savannah side of the bridge I rolled, past the gas stations and the twenty-dollar hotels where I holed up with Andi now and then over the last couple of months while I looked for an apartment.
Savannah 1986 had the highest murder rate per capita of any American city, at least according to its residents. I don’t know whether anyone bothered to verify that fact. I know that I didn’t. It was simply part of the mythology of the town, and everyone repeated it with a mixture of horror, fear, and pride.
The alleged cause of all of this violence was geography, or city planning. On either end of Savannah lay housing projects that were home to rival gangs. In the center was the historic district, home to all of those beautiful churches and landmark homes that encircled landscape squares. This is the key to Savannah’s beauty — block after block of landscaped parks. That’s where the tourists went, where the rich lived, where the art school kids walked about, where the rival gangs met to shoot each other and to rob everyone else. That’s 1986, though. I don’t know what it’s like today.
My new school was on one of those squares, the Savannah College of Art and Design. The main building was the old National Guard armory, with old iron cannons standing guard on either side of the main entrance. The school’s street-level gallery took up the square side corner of the building, paintings by school favorite professor Mark Flowers looming in the windows. Across the street was the school’s cafe bookstore, and across the square were both an antiquarian bookseller and a rectory whose only occupant was a priest who drove a new Mercedes.
I kept driving, out past Forsyth Park and its glorious fountain, the crown jewel of the city’s parks. Eventually this would be my front yard, my home an apartment with thirteen foot ceilings and a bay window that overlooked the park. Someday I would learn that Mike Tyson is the new heavyweight champ as I walked through this park. One day in this park I would have a conversation that would change my life forever.
But not today. On this Saturday in January 1986 I keep driving south down Abercorn, the painfully straight boulevard leading out of the historic district and back into the twentieth century. Abercorn is lined with fast food joints, banks, and strip malls. Ugly America, generic America, America. The traffic is intense — two lanes either direction. I left behind a town of 6,000 for the big city: 125,000 residents.
Forward, past Oglethorpe Mall, where someday I will make a new best friend. He’s probably working today, or he’s doing homework. He’s a SCAD student, too, but I don’t know that. I don’t know him.
On the left is the Chinese restaurant Lee G. and I will haunt whenever he visits, downing mustard so spicy that it temporarily blinds us. Tucked behind the grocery store rests the Windsor Arms Apartments. I’m almost ten miles away from the school but it’s the only place that I could find, my punishment for starting school a quarter late. The carpets are burnt orange and the rent is $225 per month. It’s Saturday afternoon, January 1986, and I am home.