The bus comes in from New Orleans and to Atlanta, Georgia I arrive. I’m stopping over before a bus to Savannah, trying to understand the lay of this land. And it feels like I’ve walked this road a thousand times already as the continuation of long blocked walks follows in an American city once more. I lift my bags and stiffened bones downtown to the Greyhound bus station for my ride out of the city later that day.
As I drop the bags, I make to leave and meet a couple of people hustling amidst the debris and loose twigs off the street. I get chatting after first walking away and when I say I’m from Scotland they become animated. The same thing had happened the night before. I shared bagels with someone out the New Orleans bus station on Loyola Avenue, who adds me alongside a German to the list of Europeans he’s met. After him, another man comes to talk to me. ‘Scotland!’, he exclaimed, ‘shit, I’ve always wanted to meet someone from Scotland, I hear you guys are the coolest.’ Flattering or giving me something impossible to live up to, he continues, ‘I feel like I’m meeting someone famous!’ As we talk, I hear more about his life. Coming down from Michigan, he’s been in jail for years. Stabbed, been stabbed and brutally set upon inside. He still has the scars to show it. Once out, a girl he’d been with got killed by another man. He carries pain but he’s outside now and though on the street, with shit to shoot, he’s smiling. We share a cigarette with no filter and say goodbye.
The next day I am taken through places far from where Atlanta guidebooks will tell you to go. Inside the pockets of what might seem like poverty is intelligence and free thinking that jingles against the fabric like loose change. My understanding begins as a man called Harold lights up as I talk with people around him. Impromptu, he comes forward, grey specks in his beard, with a mud brown beanie and winter coat, announcing he’ll come along with me as I walk around. Rather than cautiousness, an ease sits with me and so we walk. It’s around 930am. He goes with me to the store where I take the last cup of coffee from the pot as queues of people from the neighbourhood begin to crowd around. He talks about the tension inside. New to the place I can’t say I can recognise it. It’s not the coffee that’s the problem so we get out and walk on.
Seeking breakfast, Harold weaves me through underpasses, beyond bridges and far away from the downtown. The journey begins to make me wary but I let this fuel me on to trust. We head towards a food desert. The kind so quintessential to this land of the free. Where carcasses of car park host the parasites of burger chains and dress up the murder as choice. He tries taking me to a market for fruits and vegetables but as we arrive we see it has been closed down and turned into a gym. This area now has nowhere for people to eat good but has a space for people to go think they feel good. Let that say what it will.
We’re given a toss up between Popeye’s chicken or Taco Bell. We plump for the ding of the latter and after a night on a bus, it is good. Taking the meat out the order, the breakfast is satisfying. Pretensions of consideration aside, it hits the spot. I get some eggs and hash browns with a crunchy bite and wash it down with a low grade, low standard, FDA approved 100% juice Orange juice. We talk about vegetarianism and Harold tells me later that when I speak about sticking to diets for principle and earn focus and discipline from it, he has ruminated and feels inspired to try a new way to think. Like the rise of every sun, this morning is an occasion to understand the world and one’s own parameters and today it’s shaped by a black man from Alabama and a white man from Scotland. We stand in a small grassy park withstanding the strangulation of the freeway and laugh as the only ones standing where we want to be as lost souls race by, frantically trying to get somewhere else.
The walk back is more at ease. Harold tells me how one’s self can be controlled by our control. With a balanced state of mind, the individual can master the flow of their surroundings. He demonstrates by pointing to the road ahead. Lanes of traffic, six deep rush past. He tells me he’s going to walk across and not break stride. He puts one foot out and he crosses, poised the whole way with his head held high. Looking forward, the tide of SUVs and trucks break meekly at his shore as his sole keeps dry on the concrete sand. I scuttle across, clawing behind. He tells me the understanding comes from being neither arrogant or humble towards the clashes around. I take this as a lesson in the majesty of the individual. The inner choice of pauper or king.
He comments how as we ate our mannerisms were similar, reflecting an empathy of energy. It was a synergy that was evident, possessed, he says of the connection between people who choose to look across the road. Difference can keep people divided and the pain of this division is internal before anything else. He tells me that jealousy is worse than hatred and its ways can destroy people. It takes that look that rejects both humbleness and arrogance to find balance between others, to find the ground across the chasm. He says it should inform people to let go of the falseness that they chase that in its material keeps people under.
We sit on the ruins of rail tracks and make to say goodbye. In the midday glow, I notice a youth like glint in his eye I had not recognised earlier. I leave $15 for whatever he may need. He’s told me it is the cost for a hostel bed in a city for the excluded. He knows I may not have much and I know he would accept anything or nothing. Laugh with scepticism if the reader wants but I leave the small gesture for the two ideas that meet this morning, that crossed briefly in the plain.
Before I go, I meet with a few of the other men from the street, receiving compliments on my £4.50 shoes and talk about the moral bankruptcy of Britain with Jamaicans. The wind rushes past us and I leave for the station. Away from the tracks, I part with the last words they give me ringing in my ears. ‘We’re working to be free’, they say, ‘not living to be chained’. Hustle, friendship and vulnerability, I woke up one morning in Atlanta and wandered far from nation’s dreams.