I was barely in Atlanta for any time at all, at least compared to the great swaths of time I’ve spent in other places. (It also didn’t help that I managed to sleep till eleven on the one day I had for exploring.) But despite the lack of time I spent there, despite expecting little of it, it turned out to be full of interesting things.
The one thing I knew about the city beforehand was that it contains the Center for Puppetry Arts. One of the people I stayed with in Durham asked me excitedly on Christmas if I knew that all the puppets from Labyrinth were in this puppet museum in Atlanta. I didn’t. And, honestly, I only care about Labyrinth in the sort of way I care about Princess Bride. I’ve seen it, since I know it’s important to geek culture, but I don’t feel passionately about it. I do, however, care about puppets, and it seemed particularly important I go because of the other puppet experiences I’ve had on this trip.
I looked at and appreciated the assortment of puppets from Fraggle Rock and Sesame Street and Dark Crystal and The Muppet Show but it was when I saw this little guy that I let out an undignified squeak. Luckily the person who was serving as my tour guide and companion for the day understood my excitement. She actually might beat me in a nerd-off.
She grew up in the area, and had fond memories of school trips to the museum, and was more versed in the all of the media on display there than I was, so it was nice to see the museum from her point of view.
We moved from the Henson-dominated exhibit into the International Exhibit. Here everything wasn’t an object from some piece of popular culture we were already familiar with, so we were interested more from an academic stand-point instead of experiencing the sort of glee that comes from seeing a DRD in the… metal. There were more varieties of puppetry on display: shadow-puppets and marionettes; puppets used in religious ceremonies and the old profane stand-bys, Punch and Judy. In the corner of one room was a puppet that could’ve snuck away from the wall of Shoestring Theater in Portland, Maine.
In an occurrence of the sort of synchronicity I’ve been looking for in my reading of travel narratives, when I pulled out Don Quixote in the bus station that evening, a puppet show had just arrived at the inn the knight was staying at.
[T]he show was set up and uncovered, plentifully supplied on all sides with lighted wax tapers that gave it a gay and festive air. Master Pedro took his place inside it, for it was he who had to work the puppets, and a boy, a servant of his, stood outside to act as interpreter and explain the mysteries of the show. He held a wand in his hand to point out the figures as they emerged upon the stage. All those who were in the inn were already seated in front of the show, and some were standing.
I’d just learned about this practice of having a narrator explain the puppet show earlier in the day and it seemed like a sort of curious practice. Did this mean that the puppets didn’t speak? Did the action of the show not stand on its own? The puppet show in Don Quixote wasn’t described at all, the only thing written down was the boy’s narration, and as I read through it I imagined some of the puppets I’d seen acting out the plot.
After exhausting the Center for Puppetry Arts we went to The Varsity for lunch. (We had to trick the GPS we were relying on into getting us there. The GPS may as well have been a character in the day along with my fellow Wooster alum and me, given how much we conversed with her–apologizing for ignoring her directions, teasing her for repeating herself–and how much she shaped what we actually ended up seeing over the course of the day.) The Varsity is apparently the world’s largest drive-in, though we sat inside.
They employ an artist who sits in the entry-way, hunched over his easel, drawing pictures of the way Atlanta used to look, when The Varsity opened. The walls all around him are covered in these black and white drawings for sale and there is a sign proclaiming “Artist at Work” just in case you were confused as to what was going on. Moving beyond him you’ll encounter a long row of registers where cashiers in paper hats call out “What’ll ya have?” in a rhythm so precise it almost becomes a nonsense phrase to indicate they’re ready to take your order. The food is greasy and delicious.
Krog tunnel is an underpass that’s been devoted entirely to street art. The only time things get painted over here is when another artist comes along and adds to the exhibition. There are pieces ranging from the beautiful and almost transcendent to the crass and everywhere in between–just like the puppets from earlier in the day. Frequently these pieces intersect and overlap. There are no frames to separate them and it’s kind of awesome. It reminded me of the walls around the water treatment plant in Portland where I think the city must have also sanctioned graffiti, because they looked like this. Some day I’m going to write an absurdly long post about all the different varieties of graffiti I’ve seen on this trip and analyze them to a probably ridiculous degree, but it is not this day.
The man working in the gift shop at Historic Oakland Cemetry–the gift shop where they sell scented candles inspired by authors even though there isn’t one for Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind, and was the only person buried there that I’d heard of–comes from the same breed as the man who worked at the Red Path Sugar Museum. When we entered he was in the middle of a long answer to what I assume was a short question asked by one of the two young men in the small shop, presumably the one who was paying attention to the answer and not the one who left half way through to go sit outside and fiddle with his fancy camera.
The cemetery was beautiful and eerie. There are still a few empty plots and although they’re all claimed some people will sell theirs off for two grand or more (thanks enthusiastic guy working at the gift shop who I eavesdropped on!) so among the rows and rows of gravestones from a century ago sometimes you’ll stumble upon some granite with a photo-realistic laser engraving of the deceased and it’s rather startling. The mixture of eras clashing together only serves as a reminder that in another hundred years the differences will be hard to spot and it will all just feel old to the people wandering around during their day in Atlanta.
Woodruff Park was weirdly segregated, with all the people of color hanging out at one end and the white people at the other–no matter what their socio-economic class appeared to be. Maybe I was particularly sensitive to it having just come from Oakland Cemetery with the row upon row of Confederate graves and the pamphlets describing the trail of ruin the Yankee army cut through the South, in language as flowery and biased as that, if not more so. The unique feature of Woodruff Park, the thing that had gotten it onto my list of things to see, was the Reading Room. This is just a collection of carts with books–a lot of them with stickers pointing out that they were donated by Starbucks–and a few tables scattered around so that you can sit and read for awhile. It’s totally open to the elements and fabulous in its incongruity.
Centennial Olympic Park has a fountain that’s almost like watching fireworks–especially after dark, which was when we got there. Spouts arranged in five, intersecting circles, like the emblem of the Olympics spiral through a bunch of different patterns, spouts reaching different heights at different times as different colored lights illuminate them. You find yourself picking favorites–”Oh, I like it when they spurt in that rhythm”–and being disappointed when they return to some different pattern. It was chilly, so there weren’t children running through the rings, soaking themselves purposefully, but there was a group of teenagers who were making a game out of trying to jump from the safety of the interior of one ring to the interior of another without getting splashed at all. They met with varying degrees of success. There must have been some internal logic guiding the fountain but from the outside it was hard to predict which spout was going to blow next.
I have a vague awareness of the ’96 Olympics as seen from a tent made from sheets draped across living room furniture. I feel like that was the year the Olympics was on the TV all the time, but I was only peripherally aware of the complex gymnastics routines because I was busy being a wolf in my flimsy, yellow cave. This limited awareness dulled my reaction to reading a commemorative plaque about the bombing that happened then, because even though I couldn’t remember anything about it I felt like I should know that it had happened.
The day ended at The Bookhouse, a Twin Peaks themed bar. I’m sad I haven’t gotten around to watching Twin Peaks because then I probably could’ve appreciated its awesomeness even more. It reminded me of The Waystation, and this, on top of the bumper sticker with the numbers from Lost on it, and the outdoor reading room, and the car with the Optimus Prime decal, all added up to convince me that Atlanta is far nerdier than I gave it credit for.