Down & Out in Atlanta

The Official Crock of the '96 Summer Olympics

Down & Out in Atlanta
By Jason Stout

It may be winter everywhere on Earth below the equator, but that technicality hasn't stopped the Olympic Committee from taking the "Summer" Games deep into southerly latitudes, to Sydney, Australia. The torch, and all its coinciding headiness and headaches, passes by the United States for now.

Thank God.

I couldn't take another one. The last one almost killed me.

The nightmares and painful memories even now crash the gates of my subconscious, invasive as the airborne pollen of an Atlanta spring, bullying away competing thoughts like the kudzu vines that asphyxiate the Peach State. These thoughts recall an Atlanta where I found myself broke, living outside downtown in a mosquito-infested tool shed with four strangers, plagued by a streak of bad luck and humiliations well beyond the frontier of any type of experience I thought remotely "Olympic."

Six weeks before Muhammad Ali christened the 1996 Games with the ritual torch, I'd been working on a pioneer-themed network television miniseries shooting here in Austin. Out of nowhere, the network brass pulled the plug on the project. I'd been counting on six months of steady work, and, in anticipation of such, had rung up a rap sheet of debts that were no match for that summer's Austin job scene. An old roommate of mine up north told me about a company called Atlanta Recruiting that was hiring thousands of temporary workers for the Olympics.

In exchange for a three-week tour of duty as an employee at a souvenir stand or snack bar during the Olympics, Atlanta Recruiting would provide transportation, housing, meals, two tickets to an Olympic event, and a $1,200 salary. Everything seemed to be above-board, so I packed up and set off for Atlanta.

When I made it to the outskirts of the city, I remembered instructions to call a hotline to be told which of Atlanta Recruiting's "reception centers" I should report to. With my car idling in a suburban parking lot, I phoned in. What I then heard made my blood curdle.

"You've reached the offices of Atlanta Recruiting," a recorded message said. "All operators are busy right now."

This was immediately suspect, because there obviously weren't any operators, much less busy ones. The sibilant hiss and mechanical clicking on the line was unquestionably the sonic calling card of an overworked $25 answering machine. The message continued:

"If you have not already left for Atlanta at this time, please do not. No more buses will be dispatched to bring people to Atlanta from outside points." The voice hesitated. It didn't seem to know how to go on. And when it finally did, it sounded ... guilty. "Uh ... thank you for your time and your interest in Atlanta Recruiting. Goodbye." Click. No other information. Nothing.

I rifled through the papers the company had sent me, looking for the address on their letterhead: 2221 Peachtree (what else?) Road, Suite D.

Peachtree Road proved to be a causeway of strip malls and familiar chain restaurants. The edifice standing at 2221 was just another accumulation of small retailers and fast food joints with a single hallway of office rooms that rented out by the week, the type that might be hired by the campaign of an underfunded longshot challenger in a City Council election, or a suspicious "modeling agency" that just might be a front for small-time pornographers.

Inside Suite D was a young black woman and two blond teenagers who couldn't have been over 17 years old. The young woman was extremely wound-up and frustrated. While her phone rang incessantly, she was on another line trying to placate a group of eight people whose bus to Georgia had never arrived at the Port Authority Terminal in New York. These people, who were supposed to be making a transfer from buses that had brought them to Manhattan from points upstate, had no way to get home. The young woman had been able to reserve a single hotel room for the lot of them, but the hotel manager would only allow half their number in the room.

"Listen to me," the young woman before me was pleading into the receiver, "You've got to find some way to just sneak the other four in. Is there a fire escape?"

When I was able to get a word in edgewise, I was told to go to a place called the South Atlanta Expo Center, about 10 miles from downtown. As I turned to leave, I was surprised to see the two teenage boys rise and walk out with me.

"Wait," I asked. "Don't you guys work here?"

"No, man, we got here just this morning, like you," the one named Mike said. "This whole thing is bullshit. I came over here and volunteered to help answer the phones for a bit, and while I was looking through the office, I got the company president's name, his cell phone number, his car's license plate number, I even got to see a picture of him. So c'mon, we're going to go kick some ass."

They walked me out to the curb where their brand new Ford Mustang was parked. The two boys, Mike and William, had both just finished their junior years of high school in Hickory, North Carolina. Mike spoke slowly, in an accent that anticipated what I thought would become, with age, the grandiloquent drawl heard only in the tobacco-growing corners of the nation. William was brawny, dreamy-eyed, and quiet, the perfect sidekick.

"We're gonna go to that Expo Center and get to the bottom of this," Mike yelled to me over the stereo as we drove. "Me and William are both gonna be in the CIA when we get out of college. Or at least the FBI. You just stick with us."

The South Atlanta Expo Center was by the interstate, in one of those blighted areas that always seem to be near airports. It was a huge, low-slung building with a chain-link fence around it and weeds growing through cracks in the parking lot.

Inside, a crush of humanity filled the drab, concrete floor space that had probably last been used for a gun show or a discount golf equipment marketplace. Most of the people were giddy teenagers with backpacks and wary chaperones: youth groups. Everywhere, youth groups, all come to Atlanta on eager fundraising crusades. Sunday schools. Marching bands. Boy Scouts. Soccer teams. With them in the crowd were pockets of adults who had come to work, standing together stiffly with nervous, roaming eyes, the room's lowly median age making them wonder if they were in the right place.

Trying to keep the peace was a team of "facilitators," mostly local college students, whose uniforms and laminated ID badges comprised a dangerously thin barrier from absolute anarchy.

Down & Out in Atlanta
By Jason Stout

Everyone was asking, okay, where do we move in? What are the jobs? When is the food coming? The facilitators gave vague, stalling half-answers that didn't facilitate much except frustration. And hundreds more arrived every hour. By afternoon there were 3,000, standing around, impatient and hungry.

Mike and William dove into the crowd like hunting dogs running off to retrieve a downed pheasant. Within minutes, they surfaced with Jennifer, an attractive blond woman in her late 30s, in tow. Mike whispered to me that she seemed to be in charge.

Jennifer shook my hand and gave me the apologetic roll of the eyes I believe she was reserving for people over 20 who weren't chaperoning anyone.

"Everything's a little crazy right now," she told me. "But everything is going to be fine."

Jennifer had a talent for remaining calm. At first this was comforting, but over the next week, as my fate became less and less extricable from her influence, I began to see her mildness as an alarming inability to admit total failure.

Night fell. No food, no new information had come. The scene started to resemble newscast footage of flood victims at a Red Cross shelter. Mike, who'd been keeping his ear to the ground, sidled up to me.

"Dude, listen to this. They've got no place for everyone to sleep. But I was talking to Jennifer, and check this out. They've rented out this entire hotel, but only about 200 people out of the 3,000 here will be able to fit. I'm gonna make sure we're on the list of people that get to go. Is that cool?"

The Douglasville Lodge, three floors of predictable, cheap rooms, seemed to be about halfway back to the Alabama state line from downtown. When I arrived it was almost midnight.

"Oh, you're Jonathan?" an old woman at the desk asked when I went to check in. "These two nice boys told me to make sure you get put in their room."

Mike and William had wasted no time in charming her. Southern men, in my experience, have a distinctive ability to gain the confidence of mother- and grandmother-types quickly and skillfully. Their etiquette level adjusts with the ease of a halogen lightbulb's output. At the drop of a hat, they can go from redneck temerity to the almost antebellum graciousness required to deal successfully with the prim gatekeepers of Dixie's teenage girls.

Mike and William weren't around when I entered the room, so I fell asleep. In the middle of the night, however, the pair staggered in, each with a girl on his arm. Barely conscious, I heard Mike lead the girls to the edge of my bed.

"That's our roommate," Mike whispered with an almost pedagogic reverence. "His name's Jonathan. He's from Texas. Just look at him."

There was silence for a minute, and then the foursome crept back out, careful not to disturb me, as if I were some exotic animal that had picked a strange and lucky place to curl up for the night.

In the morning, we learned that the check Atlanta Recruiting had written the motel for all the rooms had bounced. Mike, William, and I were the only people with cars; everyone else had come out the night before on buses. And now the buses were gone. No one had had anything to eat for 24 hours, the rooms had not been paid for, and now no one could even leave. Everyone was furious. One woman appointed herself leader of the group and began to call newspapers and television stations. But, by coincidence, this was the same day as the TWA Flight 800 plane crash, and nothing was going to rearrange the priorities of CNN or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Feeling somewhat guilty, I left and drove back to Atlanta to see if I could get some answers. Mike and William decided to stay with their new girlfriends, so we promised to watch each others' backs from afar.

Back at the Expo Center, things were grim. The damp sordidness of the air inside proved that everyone else had spent the night sleeping on the dingy floors, about half of them in little dens they'd built with walls of stacked luggage. I could not find Jennifer. The facilitators, however, tried to remain upbeat. All of our questions, they promised, would be answered soon.

That afternoon, several carloads of donated pizzas arrived, and the scene became a literal riot. Teenagers jumped the delivery men as they came in the front doors and wrestled them down. Everyone was screaming. People grabbed what they could and then ran off to dark corners to eat like dogs. Afterward, I spotted a facilitator, a young woman with black hair, bawling in the arms of one of her colleagues. Even they were giving up.

The checks written to the bus charter companies that had brought most of Atlanta Recruiting's people from urban centers in Virginia and the Carolinas had also bounced. The drivers refused to take anyone back home until they were paid. As for my old roommate in New York, no bus had come for her. She shared the fate of many other Atlanta Recruits up and down the East Coast. The lucky ones.

By nightfall, no move had been made to bring all these people to any kind of housing. The slim fraction of Atlanta Recruiting staff brave enough to show their faces by then knew they might be able to get away with making the youth groups sleep at the Expo Center a second night, but they would have to make some arrangements for the adults in the crowd.

So around 10pm, I found myself waiting outside the lobby of a Shoney's Motor Inn in some suburb with about 80 other people. The motel staff wouldn't let anyone in until some kind of payment arrangements had been made. We waited until we were almost sure we'd fallen for a plot to oust us from the Expo Center, but finally, after about two hours, Jennifer arrived. Exhausted but, as always, strangely composed, Jennifer marched past us into the lobby, took out her personal credit card and paid for 20 rooms. The corners of her mouth betrayed just the slightest twinge as she saw the sum being called in to her bank for approval.

Obligated to bunk four to a room that night, I fell in with a trio of friends from the area around the Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina. Laura, a pretty, curly-haired woman about my age, had been planning this trip to be a working vacation from her first two years of motherhood. She had a baby son, and this was her first time away from him. There was also Christine, a hot-headed, chatty National Guard veteran also in her 20s. She and her husband, who'd been in the army and now worked installing heating and air conditioning, were living with another couple in a trailer somewhere near Fort Bragg. They wanted to move to St. Petersburg, Florida, and Christine had come hoping to make money for the trip. Finally, there was Michael, who managed a restaurant and bar in a town adjacent to the base. He played a kind of clean-cut, sympathetic big brother to the other two.

The four of us returned in the morning to the Expo Center, which by then resembled a refugee camp. Litter was everywhere, and the air smelled of unwashed bodies. People were finally beginning to pull out. Worried parents all over the country had spared no expense in evacuating their children.

The Atlanta Recruiting staff finally admitted it: There was no housing. They could not provide meals, uniforms, or Olympic tickets. The district attorney and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were investigating them, and there were rumors that the company officers had fled the country. (I heard a man shouting from a back room, "I'm not going to jail for this! I can't! I won't!")

But they said they still had jobs to offer. Laura, Christine, Michael, and I agreed to show up for work the next day at a downtown Atlanta address on Ponce de Leon Avenue. We were told we'd be paid $11.50 an hour to make up for the meals and accommodations we'd have to get on our own.

Down & Out in Atlanta
By Jason Stout

Christine had an idea about where we could stay. Her husband had an old army buddy who lived somewhere nearby, so she decided to call him to see if we could impose. I wanted to stop her. How, I wondered, can someone be asked to put up four strangers for three weeks? But then again, I hadn't met Scott Fletcher.

Scott was in his late 20s. He worked at an auto parts store in Stone Mountain, Georgia, but lived in Atlanta. His face was that of a natural sarcastic, and there was an unkempt, laissez-faire charm to him. Since leaving the army, he'd grown his hair long to spite the Procrustean flat-top that had been forced on him during his military years. Without the slightest objection to the idea of our staying with him, he met us at a restaurant downtown, and we followed him to his house.

The neighborhood he took us to turned out to be an odd pocket of rurality sandwiched between a ghetto and a zone of dusty, boarded-up factories and warehouses: a Plymouth Plantation of Crackerism that had accidentally survived right in the middle of the city but could easily have been some small town 60 miles away. Even the mosquitoes there seemed lazy and apprehensive: Perhaps the old, settled blood they stole from the neighborhood's mostly elderly, porch-dwelling residents had got to them.

Scott's place was actually a kind of large shed in the back yard of another family's house, no more removed than a child's clubhouse might be. It was, in fact, a retooled tool shed, outfitted for the family's late mother-in-law during her last years and then rented to Scott after her death. There was an unfinished, weekend-carpentry-project design to the building. A garden approached it on one side, and this agricultural reference, coupled with the manorial impression the three-bedroom "main house" gave by comparison, rendered the arrangement bizarrely feudalistic. Inside, there was a garage-sale heterogeneity to the furniture, with old towels and pillowcases thumbtacked over the windows in place of curtains or shades.

Expecting to be working at some kind of officially sanctioned Olympic venue, we were surprised to find out the following day that the address Atlanta Recruiting gave us was actually to a fenced-in vacant lot in the shadow of tall office buildings downtown. Booths and tents had been arranged along the perimeter of the fence, like a very sparse and disappointing flea market.

Three middle-aged men from New Jersey were giving an orientation speech to a group of about 70 workers. The lot, it seemed, was going to be the home of a Native American "pavilion," run by a group of Seminoles from Florida. Dancers, storytellers, craftsmen, and musicians from tribes all over North America were going to put on exhibits and performances here throughout the run of the Games. But it was essentially a sideshow, with no recognition by the Olympic Committee, meant to capitalize on the legions of tourists everyone expected to be swarming downtown Atlanta in spite of all the events being held miles away.

Inside the pavilion, the three New Jersey men were running snack bars and little stands to sell soda, bags of potato chips, and, bafflingly, cigarettes. Out of two dozen stands in a smallish, one-city-block lot, more than half were selling cigarettes at double the price of any pharmacy nearby. Furthermore, between the tobacco hawkers and the other vendors, the actual Indian displays looked miserably skimpy.

I had a premonition of doom when I looked to the entrance gate and saw a banner reading ADULT ADMISSION $10.

My companions and I had been hired to run a hot dog and frozen pizza concession: about 20 card tables underneath a few E-Z Up tents. Dennis, one of the investors, showed us how to operate the small ovens that baked the pizzas.

"There's cheese, pepperoni, vegetarian, and check out this: breakfast pizzas," Dennis said.

I could only repeat him. "Breakfast pizzas?"

"Sure. Amazing, huh? They've got scrambled eggs, cheese, and ham on them. I want you guys to make sure you have a bunch of these ready to go the first few hours every morning."

I looked down at the pizzas. They were of no recognizable brand name, but their size, shape, and long list of unpronounceable additives would have been familiar to the habitués of roller skating rink and second-tier amusement park snack bars from sea to shining sea. What's more, Dennis wanted us to try to sell them, and the hot dogs, for $5 each.

There were boxes and boxes of shrinkwrapped hot dogs and pizzas, but no refrigerators. Instead, Dennis showed us an insulated trailer full of ice blocks that had been parked under a nearby tree, by several Porta-Johns. He gave us several dozen deep plastic buckets and instructed us to put our perishables at the bottom of the buckets, cover them with ice, and leave them in the shade. Of course, it was July. In Georgia.

"Try not to let anything spoil, but don't kill yourselves over it," Dennis said. "We've got a fucking warehouse full of this shit."

As the days passed, the pavilion began to methodically refute the "If you build it, they will come" school of amusement management. Tourists weren't coming anywhere near that part of the city, and most workaday Atlantans were on vacation or renting their homes to visitors. The Seminoles, in intricate costume, staged dances on the sidewalk in front of the lot to try to lure the few passing people in. Passersby would pause appreciatively and applaud at the dance's conclusion, then continue on.

Another of the New Jersey trio was a man named Leo, who had a tragic resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield. Half a week had seen only a handful of visitors making their way into the pavilion, and Leo was growing exasperated and nervous. Whenever we had customers, he would rush forth with desperation upon their leaving.

"Were those people Americans?" he'd demand.

"Yeah, Leo. They were."

He would then withdraw, without another word, scratching his head and breathing heavily -- only to resurface 15 minutes later when a man bought a Coca-Cola.

"How about that guy?"


It became clear that back up in Tenafly, Leo had become obsessed with the vision of throngs of unsavvy, loose-pocketed foreigners, easily bilked out of $10 each for a couple of hot dogs and sodas. Leo might as well have been a Spanish conquistador pursuing cities of gold in the countryside of the American Southeast, like Ponce de Leon himself, whose namesake thoroughfare this extremely unwise investment found itself upon.

Down & Out in Atlanta
By Jason Stout

My companions and I were nearly the only people in a position to actually appreciate what the Seminoles had put together. There was an alligator wrestler from the Everglades, flute-heavy Andean music, an Indian ventriloquist with a cowboy puppet who would sing "Rocky Top Tennessee." A half-Hopi, half-Apache comedian joked about how the Hopi Indians, with absolutely no fear of heights, would move portable toilets to the edges of cliffs and watch with laughter as Anglos who stopped to buy kachina dolls or take pictures would be too scared to use them.

On our way home one night, we found a beam of light from the sky shining down on us. It was the spotlight from a hot air balloon the police department had up 24 hours a day, patrolling the skies.

"Jesus Christ," Christine said. "This is worse than the army."

To my amazement, she dropped her pants and mooned the wary dirigible.

"Hey! You guys can kiss my ass!" she screamed, spanking herself once or twice and laughing hysterically.

Christine was talking a mile a minute on the drive home to our shed. "I see people who can't pay their bills, who get their phones and electricity turned off. God knows I have to worry about it sometimes, too. But I tell these people, you just have to pray. If you pray, and you're good, God takes care of you. You just have to ask Him for money to pay the bills, and watch your behavior. Like every time I quit smoking, something good always comes my way."

After four days, Dennis came up to us gravely. "I'm going to have to go ahead and let you go," he said. "We're not doing the kind of business we anticipated."

We commiserated at a diner that night and reviewed our sorry circumstances. A vindictive humor came upon us. We decided to confront Jennifer and demand another job, or some kind of reparations. We found her home address in the white pages, and decided to go there to deal with her face to face.

Jennifer lived in a condominium development that may have been built in an attempt to sponge off respectability from the hilly and wooded neighborhood with extremely large houses that it encroached upon. It was night and very dark when we arrived.

There was no answer when we knocked at Jennifer's door. We went back to the car to discuss what to do next. A few moments later, Christine, who had been off by herself, tiptoed up to us quickly.

"Up there!" she whispered. "Someone's watching us!"

The moment we turned to look, a silhouette ducked down from Jennifer's second-floor apartment window. We stormed over to the door, but still no one would answer.

"This is ridiculous," Laura said. "I'm going to go sit in the car." She and Michael retreated out to the parking lot, leaving me and Christine on the stoop alone.

"Let's break in," Christine suggested.

Just then, we heard a sharp whisper from somewhere in the nearby darkness. Someone was actually hiding in the bushes in front of the townhouse.

"Shhh!" a man's voice hissed. "Over here! Quick!"

A guy about 25 years old was squatting in the hedge, clutching a golf club like a weapon.

"Get in here! Get down!" the guy commanded, yanking Christine behind him. Instinct propelled me to crouch into the mulch-scented shadows. The headlights of a passing car went over us. The man rose a few provisional inches, brandishing his nine-iron. He squinted at the car as if it was a prowling guard dog that might pick up our scent any moment.

"Looks okay," he eventually reported. "It's got Georgia plates."

I asked, "All right, what the hell is going on?"

"I'll tell you. I remember you guys from the Expo Center, so I'm going to assume you're okay. Did anyone follow you here?"

He introduced himself as Ray, and explained that he and a few other hard-up Atlanta Recruits had been taken in by Jennifer and were working for her as assistants. He'd been living with her for five days.

"You must have heard that some kids came down from New York City to work for us. Well, it turns out there were some gang members from the Bronx with them. Some really dangerous people. With guns. They had cousins who live in the projects down here. Anyway, these gang members are really pissed off at what's been going on. They've been calling Jennifer on the telephone in the middle of the night, saying they're going to get her, going to 'take care' of her. They've been saying that tonight's the night."

Jennifer and her elderly mother were so scared that they had just been leaving to go hide out in a hotel for a few days when we arrived. Jennifer's mother believed that we had led the gang members over, that they were using us as bait to get them to open the door.

Down & Out in Atlanta
By Jason Stout

"You nearly gave that poor old woman a heart attack with all that knocking," Ray continued, suddenly annoyed with us.

Ray went on to explain that Jennifer's mother didn't trust us, that she wouldn't even come out of the house until she was convinced we had left.

"We're going to go meet some people at a Tony Roma's because we haven't had anything to eat all day. You guys could follow us over, and then hook up with us at the restaurant. Just don't follow us too close."

Parked a distance away, we waited with the engine running and the headlights off until we saw the door of Jennifer's townhouse open. We watched Ray slip out and scout around quickly for signs of the enemy. Two other people I remembered from the South Atlanta Expo Center helped a frazzled 70-year-old woman out to a navy blue sedan. Then Jennifer herself appeared. She locked up and joined the rest of their party.

We followed them to the restaurant, but outside, another of Jennifer's assistants had been posted to be on the lookout for us.

"Please," the girl said. "Jennifer just doesn't want to talk to you guys. It's been a very stressful day and she's very tired. She apologizes for everything and wishes you guys the best of luck."

By this time, the only thing keeping me in Atlanta was a morbid curiosity, an obsession with seeing what sick turns things might take next. As we went looking for other jobs around the city the next day, the Summer Games now in full swing, my friends and I were accidentally separated on a crowded MARTA train platform. I never found them again that whole afternoon. But as I slept in our shed that night, I was awoken by the sounds of someone screaming and bawling like a tortured house cat. Suddenly, Scott's door burst open with such violence that I sat bolt upright, convinced Jennifer's gangland pursuers had found me. But it was Laura. She was barely able to walk, and Michael was trying to keep her upright as she hobbled inside.

Michael and Laura had spent the rest of their day drowning their sorrows with drink. Laura had called her husband from some bar and learned that their son had had a seizure of some kind that day and was in the hospital. Laura immediately became convinced that it had happened because she'd left home, and she was now inconsolable -- and very, very drunk. She demanded that they drive back to North Carolina right then and there, at three o'clock in the morning.

Michael shook his head. "Okay. I'll get my stuff together. I haven't had a drink in two hours. I'll take her home. What else can we do?"

Ten minutes later they left, never to come back. I later learned that they had fallen asleep at the wheel and ran off the road, not hurting themselves badly but totaling Laura's car, hours later, somewhere in South Carolina.

Atlanta seemed to me a bad-luck charm disguised as a city. I hypothesized that in a previous life I'd been in the infantry of William Tecumseh Sherman's army, and now, generations later, the city was taking its revenge.

Late in the week, Christine and I heard a rumor about a league of local churches that had housed and fed one of the groups stranded by Atlanta Recruiting. They were purportedly trying to give aid to any of us who were still around.

The church league was a very large, African-American Baptist congregation. They ran a program called "Project Impact," a job-skills training and "youth at risk" outreach program. They invited us to their offices.

The Project Impact coordinator we met was a well-spoken black man in his 30s. He told us that the Aramark Corporation, a giant catering and hospitality company running all the official Olympic concessions, had contracted Project Impact to provide workers for its operations in the Olympic Stadium during the track and field events. In addition to popcorn and ice cream, they were supposed to also sell beer in the stands. Being a Christian organization, they didn't feel right having the members of their program working closely with alcoholic drinks. But as far as they were concerned, Christine and I could have the jobs.

So I began selling beer in the stands of the Olympic Stadium, first during not-quite-climactic events like the women's discus qualifying rounds, but the drama and pace picked up quickly.

One morning I got up for work trying to shake off a troubled feeling that a dream about a bomb attack had left me. I was telling Christine about it when she informed me it hadn't been a dream. I'd been sleeping through news reports about the Olympic Park bombing on the television all night.

Both the weather and the mood seemed heavy that morning as I bicycled to work. Halfway to the stadium, I was caught in an hourlong downpour, and took refuge in the side doorway of a downtown church. Three homeless men were standing nearby, on the dry side of a waterfall of runoff coursing off the overhanging roof. Two Olympic tourists, a man and wife both wearing Fila track suits, ran up under another awning to get out of the rain. We all stood in silence for several minutes.

Another homeless man appeared, walking down the sidewalk, soaking from head to toe. The woman tourist laughed at him and made some joke to her husband. The wet man overheard and became angry. He raged at them for making fun of him, and the couple, thoroughly intimidated, hurried off into the rain. They were soon just as wet as their assailant had been. He glumly took over the dry spot the couple had left.

One of the three homeless men leaning against the church wall spoke suddenly in a very soft voice.

"Bombs explode, and the tears of God wash the soot off the earth," he said.

Leaving work the night of the Closing Ceremonies, I counted all my tips and wages and discovered I had made more than $3,000 in cash in two weeks. Patience, perhaps obstinacy, had nearly trebled what I had expected to earn by coming to Atlanta. Still, I wondered if I had had to pay for this happy ending with more than persistence, luck, and the so-called sweat of my brow.

At the conclusion of every staging of the Olympic Games, it is traditional for the chairman of the Olympic Committee to pronounce in his closing address that these most recent games were the ultimate, the best so far. In Atlanta, however, a biting innuendo broke this practice. The Atlanta games were dubbed "exceptional."

Blame this slight on the fact that petty details, and, I think it was hinted, peculiarly American ones -- rampant commercialism, paranoia, the agenda of what was probably some redneck terrorist, and the logistical snafus of a city whose desire to burst upon the world's stage silenced those who questioned if it was ready to do so -- almost undermined the power of sheer spectacle. They nearly made us take our eyes away from the Great and Powerful Oz and see the little man pulling levers behind the curtain. end story

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