Hot and Bothered, Darlin’? How We All Go Crazy from the Heat Down South

This ran in Atlanta magazine. The wonderfully vague assignment was “give us 1,200 words or so on how heat affects the South.”
Sometimes the heat is actually visible.


Liz as “Maggie the Cat”

In the movies, when it rises in shimmering waves from the road and transforms, like a fun-house mirror, a parched Southern landscape, we know that something is about to happen. “Cool Hand” Luke is about to run from the guard in mirrored sunglasses; Maggie the Cat, flouncing around in just her slip, is on the verge of a hissy fit; or Huey Long is warming up for a rabble-rousing stump speech. With folks reaching a metaphysical boiling point, somebody is liable to get whupped, laid, or swayed by a demagogue. In other words, something distinctly Southern is about to go down.

Extreme conditions foster extremists. Our heat is the muggy kind, as opposed to the bone-blanching aridity of the Southwest, so we end up pickled and preserved in sweat, growing ever more pungent in personality. God says, according to Revelation 3:16, “… because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth.” There is nothing “lukewarm” about the South in summer, Lord knows, and after this hot spell, hell would feel redundant.

In fact, some less than heavenly behavior usually transpires this time of year. When people get “hot under the collar,” their necks turn red. Racial tensions simmer “In the Heat of the Night,” and sometimes a rascal will wink and burn down a barn, as in The Long, Hot Summer, written by our official spokesman, William Faulkner. Or worse. Sociologists always equate the heat with the South’s homicide rate, which is consistently higher than the rest of the nation’s, and with our homespun brutality in general. When was the last time you spotted a ragged chain gang limping through the sweltering torment of … New England? Every couple of years, a research report links hot weather and domestic violence, or climbing mercury with barroom brawls. It is widely believed that most murders occur at 92 degrees Fahrenheit — a convenient factoid for Thomas McGuane, who wrote the authoritative text on “crazy from the heat” misbehavior, Ninety-Two In the Shade.

But enough of death; what of life?

Not surprisingly, more babies usually are conceived during the summer. Flesh goes bare; bosoms heave; sinews glisten under a sheen of perspiration. Everybody sizzles. In “Body Heat,” set in north Florida, the antihero repeats the fateful mantra, “I asked you not to talk about the heat,” and soon enough, he is smashing through a glass door to ravish the panting femme fatale. The weather is credited with making Southern women “sultry.” Consider the expression, “hot and bothered,” or my favorite, “hot to trot.” Fluttering, handheld fans are ancient tools of the coquetry trade, and hoop skirts were designed for, ahem, localized ventilation. Who could stay frigid in these circumstances?

Other domestic politics are influenced, as well. Georgia holds primary elections in midsummer for several strategic reasons, says government analyst Bill Shipp.

“Fewer blacks vote in the summertime, and whites are often on vacation,” he says. “Summer rains hold down turnouts, and incumbents have a much better chance to win when turnout is low.” And, moreover, “most people ignore politics and similar serious subjects during June, July and August.”

Presumably we are too busy making trouble, and love, to care. Priorities shift in other ways, too, here on the topographical griddle. People avoid scalding foods and eat tomato sandwiches or watermelon. My forebears, too poor to buy ice, stored their hand-squeezed milk in wells, creeks, and rainwater that had collected in barrels; other perishables, like pork, were cured with salt. (One of the few indulgences of my grandmother, still reeling from the Depression and her inability to “keep anything when it’s hot,” is a deep freezer the size of a Buick; she takes such pride in all of its loamy-looking, frozen condensation.) And look at the architecture. The South’s social life historically has been framed by open windows and breezy porches and verandas, a free-flowing set-up that facilitates gossip, storytelling, and a languid rhythm sometimes described as “European,” in contrast to the harried, battened-down, permafrost North.

So air conditioning naturally — or unnaturally — created a stir. Southerners of a certain age usually can recall the first time they felt that blast of cold air, usually in the 1940s or ’50s. They remember the signs with icicles dripping from the letters, the sumptuous pleasure of a cool movie theater. In a pre-PETA move, a hardware store in Macon displayed live, but listless, penguins in its window to advertise the new machines.

“Air conditioning in hotels, cars, and the convention center made the heat, in one’s passage through it, stimulating,” writes V.S. Naipaul in A Turn in the South. “…now the very weather of the South had been made to work the other way. The heat that should have debilitated had been turned into a source of pleasure, a sensual excitement, an attraction: a political convention could be held in Dallas in the middle of August.”

So, too, could manufacturers set up assembly lines without worrying quite so much about the literalness of sweatshops. Industry brought a population boom of transplants, who, in turn, brought change. It was air conditioning that gave us the concept of the “Sun Belt,” a more modern, careerist label than “Dixie.” Some historians even argue that air conditioning, by circulating people as well as oxygen, played a significant role in ending Jim Crow and the South’s widespread poverty. No doubt we needed that breath of fresh air.

Still, I fret about that climate-controlled, hermetically sealed, girl-in-a-bubble feeling that descends when I make my daily rounds, from one vent to another. I don’t want all of the madness of Southerners to evaporate with the freon. I miss squirting my shrieking cousins with the garden hose, and I like to get a little sun-addled from time to time, and fantasize about what could happen if the right field-hand or escaped convict crossed my path. Could we burn a barn together?

But mostly I keep my thermostat set at 68 degrees.



The Royal Peacock: Don’t you wish you were there, back then, at Atlanta’s “Club Beautiful”?

This story was published in Georgia Music Magazine and won a Green Eyeshade Award:
If “Big Red” McAllister had practiced more self-restraint on the road, the Royal Peacock might never have hatched into one of the country’s most legendary nightclubs and a landmark of African-American culture, its rafters rattled nightly by soulful history-makers such as Little Richard, James Brown, and Ray Charles.
In the 1940s, McAllister loved playing his saxophone and leading his 14-piece orchestra on the usual rounds of the South’s “chitlin’ circuit” and starchier gigs at white colleges.  He managed to cut a few Duke Ellington-inspired records, but he was better known for his epic hedonism than his musical virtuosity.
“He was fun-loving,” says daughter Delois Scott. “He would get drunk, sell the bus, fire the bus driver, pawn the instruments, and they all would be stranded in Florida or North Carolina or somewhere. One time, he was locked up, all his clothes gone to the pawn shop. God, it would be the biggest mess.”
It was McAllister’s devoted and well-heeled mother, Carrie Cunningham, who always came to his rescue. “She’d be cursing and calling him all kind of names, but she’d get him, the band, the bus, the instruments — everything — out of jail,” Scott says. “Mama” Cunningham, a widow by then, owned and managed the Royal Hotel on Auburn Avenue, the lively business artery of black Atlanta.  She reasoned that the only way to keep her wayward, horn-blowing son at home and more or less out of trouble was to furnish him with the ultimate playground: a lounge with a stage on “Sweet Auburn.”Delois old photo 1
However, this spot always was destined to be more than a common juke joint because Mama Cunningham was an entrepreneur with uncommon aspirations. As a teen-ager in Fitzgerald, Georgia, she literally ran away with the circus. When the Silas Green Show, one of the country’s largest traveling vaudeville troupes, passed through, scouting for a juicy chorine to ride a white horse on stage, she saddled up.
“The way she told it was that she got on that damn horse to get the hell out of Fitzgerald and see the world,” Scott says. “When I think of my grandmother, the lady on the white horse, well, she always went first class all the way or she wouldn’t go at all. The way she dressed, the cars, the men in her life, the food, the furniture, the activity around her — whatever the best was, that was what her goal was.”
That perfectionism would extend, with glorious results, to the entertainment when she purchased the old Top Hat Club in 1949. She renamed and remade the building at 185 Auburn Avenue in the image of what was clearly her spirit-animal, painting the walls and every surface with vivid, amethyst renderings of those eponymous tail-feathers. “She was peacock-crazy!” Scott says. Outside, a neon-script sign announced without hyperbole: “Royal Peacock: Atlanta’s Club Beautiful.”
The gregarious Big Red, at last discovering a more constructive use for his many contacts from the road, began booking acts, and the playbills eventually would read like a genre-defining “who’s who” of American music: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Howlin’ Wolf, the Orioles, the Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Dinah Washington, Ben E. King, Sam & Dave, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Big Mama Thornton, Sam Cooke, The Four Tops, LaVern Baker, the Isley Brothers, and on and on.
The biggest draws, though, remembers Scott, were Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and “Little Richard” Penniman, who invariably worked up such a sweat that his pancake makeup streamed in muddy rivulets all over the piano keys, requiring hours of post-show scrubbing. Drawing on the inimitable poetry that made “Tutti Frutti” a hit, the Macon-born “architect of rock ’n’ roll” described the sounds emanating from the Peacock as a force that “regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter, and the knees freeze.”With all of the brothers and sisters — and, later on, a trickle of reverent white hipsters who hovered as inconspicuously as possible in back — flocking to the Peacock in the 1950s and ’60s, it became known as the South’s version of the Apollo Theater.Many kinds of plumage were always on display.

The Peacock could hold about 350 people, according to the fire code, but often teemed with hundreds more, standing on tables and chairs to glimpse the nimble footwork on stage. The lines for shows would snake all the way around the block and — with all of the fedoras, flasks, and flirting — offered their own compelling pageantry.

However, in the Jim Crow South, revelers were careful not to venture too far from Sweet Auburn. White businesses around the corner on Peachtree Street posted signs that admonished, “Don’t Buy Negro Records” whose “screaming, idiotic words and savage music … are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.” Arch-segregationist Lester Maddox once peered warily into the Peacock in an effort to understand the siren song that was luring freckle-faced kids into booty-shaking dissolution. Whether he ever “got it” at any point in his long, cantankerous life is a matter of some debate, but most people around the world certainly did.

The music had always claimed unmistakable power, which gathered galvanic force with the civil rights movement. The Peacock was surrounded by churches and black-owned businesses mobilized in the struggle, along with The Atlanta Daily World, the country’s first, successful black-owned daily newspaper. While the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sanctified the very air with his oratory, the nightclub functioned as the cathartic id in this heady atmosphere, as well as a jewel-box showcase for black genius.

Mama Cunningham’s civic stature grew with it. An omni-capable, multitasking caretaker and benefactor, she pampered the entertainers as well as her patrons, helping the “shake dancers” mend their slinky costumes and — keeping up a family tradition — always sending money to struggling, stranded musicians to get them to their Peacock gigs on time, where their favorite foods and libations would be waiting for them (ice-cold beer on hand for the bawdy comedy duo, Butterbeans & Suzy, friends from her old vaudeville days). She improvised like Scarlett O’Hara one evening when Big Mae Belle failed to bring a proper stage costume; without missing a beat, Mama Cunningham yanked down some fancy curtains in the hotel to swathe the singer’s ample figure.

An imperious, statuesque woman sequined in peacock jewelry, Mama Cunningham was every inch the queen. She was a confidante and adviser to King as well as Atlanta’s progressive white mayors and newspaper columnist Ralph McGill, and she held court with Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, and other African-American celebrities who were relieved to find a comfortable hotel without “colored” entrances and the other indignities of segregation. “No matter who you were, you couldn’t stay at the Biltmore, you couldn’t stay at the Georgian Terrace,” Scott says. “My grandmother ran a first-class hotel, with rooms that were stylishly decorated and bellmen in costumes that carried your luggage to your room.”

And in every conceivable way, guests got more than their money’s worth — usually $3.50 admission — at the Peacock. Mama Cunningham’s hellzapoppin’ showmanship drew on her roots in the Silas Green Show, which stocked its revue with gold-toothed, bump-and-grind contortionists called the “Sugar Girls.” Shows were emceed by Gorgeous George, the Atlanta disc jockey, resplendent in furs, silks, and the flashiest bling of his era, including plenty of chocolate “arm candy.” R&B diva LaVern Baker (“Jim Dandy Got Married,” “Tweedlee-dee”) reportedly started as a Peacock dancer billed as “Little Miss Sharecropper,” and curvy Rosita “Chicken” Lockhart was nicknamed the “9th Wonder of the World” for her shimmying prowess with a boa.

Here, Little Richard took many of his music and fashion cues from local sensation Chuck Willis, a blues shouter known as the “King of Stroll” and the “Sheik of the Shake,” who accessorized with capes and a collection of 54 turbans. Occasionally, Percy Welch, a bluesman (“Back-door Man”) and a booker and promoter for the club, would be heard trying to calm Etta James, whose temper could erupt into a lava-flow of profanity between sets that soared to blissful heights with her signature “At Last.” And silky Sam Cooke played one of his last shows at the Peacock before his tragic slaying in a California motel that was not as scrupulously managed as Cunningham’s Royal empire.

For Delois Scott, the wide-eyed granddaughter growing up in the hotel and allowed into the Peacock on Fridays, the high-stepping, boogie-woogie jubilee never stopped and seldom disappointed. She remembers coming home once and stopping abruptly to appraise the smoldering young man at the bottom of the steps. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what a good-looking guy!’ It was Marvin Gaye, who had just made his first hit record.”

Mercy, mercy me, indeed.

On a recent swing through Atlanta, Aretha Franklin reminisced, “Then there was the Royal Peacock. Let me tell you, that was as hot as it could get!”

Scott is always careful to distinguish the nightclub’s identity from its New York City counterpart. “In some of the articles that have been written about the Royal Peacock, it has been likened to the Apollo, but the Peacock was the Peacock, and the Apollo was the Apollo, in my estimation,” Scott says. “Everybody calls the Royal Peacock the ‘incubator’ for artists. When Little Richard first started playing here, he was an unknown. When Ray Charles was first starting out and unknown, he played here. James Brown, unknown. Gladys Knight and Pips, unknown. Nat King Cole played here before he even started singing. He was just playing piano in the Nat King Cole Trio — I have the picture, from those days before he sang.”

When these artists found their voices, with all of their range and coloratura indelibly derived from making the best of hard times, it could be argued that, in many ways, they saved the world’s *soul.*

The “incubator” metaphor turns up in an eloquent Atlanta Weekly story by Steve Dougherty: “The Peacock should be remembered for what it was: an incubator for black music, keeping it hot and alive until it was allowed to be born, full-grown and screaming, into the midst of mainstream American pop. It’s taken over now. American music is black music.”

Mama Cunningham died in a nursing home in 1973 after struggling with what her granddaughter now believes was Alzheimer’s. That year, the Peacock closed its doors with a sigh, but its rhythms echoed in everybody’s mind, while “Sweet Auburn” gradually succumbed to urban decay. A black troupe called “The Survival Theater” nested in the historic building for a little while, and then a social club of cab drivers known as The Men of Style gave it go, followed by the Fellini’s pizza magnates, who made a game attempt to revive it as a rock club with vintage acts during the 1980s.

At a 1988 show, “Iceman” Jerry Butler took the stage and looked rapturously around the smoke-filled room. “The walls here are talking to me,” he said. “The shadows are whispering in my ear.”

More recently, the Peacock has been refashioned into a hip-hop venue that started to catch on with the crunksters when it played host in 1994 to the first FunkJazzKafe, one of the city’s edgier arts festivals, where the rapper Bone Crusher, 23 at the time, made one of his early appearances.

Nowadays, according to boosters, Auburn Avenue is cresting the wave of intown gentrification, with many giddy “mixed-use development” plans in the works, and the Peacock is re-emerging as a place for music-makers to be discovered. Bad Boy South’s Russell “Block” Spencer signed Yung Joc after spotting him at one of the nightclub’s “ATL’s Most Wanted” talent competitions. Yung Joc’s earnings then landed him on “Forbes’ Richest Rappers List,” so naturally all of the rhyme-busting hopefuls, flanked by this generation’s “Sugar Girls,” are practicing their preening “hustlenomics” at the latest incarnation of “Atlanta’s Club Beautiful.”

If we are lucky, the Royal Peacock will endure in the spirit of another line from Little Richard: “The beauty is still on duty.”

Women’s Roller Derby: ‘Git offa me, you crackhead!’

The rough draft of my story about Bama’s badass rollergirls, which appeared in the Auburn magazine:

If the “rink rash” from a skidding fall burns a cross-hatched imprint of fishnets into their rock-hard thighs, so much the better.

In the rough-and-tumble world of women’s roller derby, that counts as just another sexy battle-scar, proof that the Burn City Rollers are hell’s belles on wheels. The group, with about a dozen members in their 20s and 30s, started in September of 2008 and consists largely of students, professors, and other employees and alumnae of Auburn, though the league hopes to recruit more players around the region.

“This is a positive outlet for your aggression, ” rollergirl “Jackie OwnAsses” (say it fast) explains earnestly over the din of jostling elbows, thudding falls, and trash-talk — “Git offa me, you crackhead!” — on the rink at Auburn Skate Center, where the league practices three nights a week.

Each team member adopts a punny, over-the-top nom de guerre that reflects her derby alter-ego. “I’m a Korean adoptee, but my name – Carrie Holzmeister – so does not sound Korean. I wanted to honor that part of my heritage somehow,” Cho Cold says, adding with a sigh, “It takes some people awhile to get it, though.”

Holzmeister, who taught English at Auburn, founded the Burn City Rollers with some help from Birmingham’s Tragic City Rollers, after reading an article about the sport’s revival.

“This started as a whim,” she says. “At five-foot-two, I’m too short to play basketball, but I can move quickly,” she says. “Skates are great equalizers, so this is an every-woman’s sport, with no previous experience required.”

A certain fearlessness is required, though, both in athleticism and wardrobe, for this “Fight Club” sorority.

“Did somebody lose a pantaloon?” Cho Cold yells, waving a swath of fabric.

The skaters camp it up with colorful tutus, ratty tights, striped knee socks, old-fashioned garters, and other funky fetishes. For example, Babe E. Quakes is striking in a Xena-style gladiator costume, which loses a tassel or two during scrimmage, and Ziggy Bloodlust sports black nail polish and some neon-pink highlights in her hair. If you are hovering at the edge of the rink and see a pack of these fierce, tarted up Glamazon warriors hurtling your way, some of them with capes billowing behind them, the total effect is like an unnerving, apocalyptic scene from “Mad Max.” To be a rollergirl is to be a femme fatale in every since of the word.

“We get to be tough and sexy at the same time,” says Redrum Blur.

Cho Cold clarifies, “This is not the same as choreographed, cheeseball wrestling. What we do is natural sport. A former rugby player on our team says this is more physically demanding than rugby. It survives because people will pay to watch women hit each other, more so than, say, paying to watch us play softball.”

Indeed, any event that integrates girlie burlesque with bad-ass violence will draw a crowd. Since its bloody heyday in the 1970s, women’s roller derby has made a comeback as a cheeky, punk-influenced expression of Third Wave feminist attitude, especially in the heartland, where small-town girls come of age at skating rinks. Because it is fast, anarchic, in-your-face, anti-corporate, and dominated by mouthy, tattooed women bristling with radical politics, it is often described as the opposite of golf. The word “empowering” pops up often in conversation.

“I’ve never done anything athletic before this – I mean, I was the Quiz Bowl captain type,” says Paina Skully, an X-Files fan who just earned a master’s in English. “I’ve really surprised myself – and a lot of other people – with what I am capable of physically. This is the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

The sport originally grew out of co-ed endurance contests during the Depression, and its guidelines were outlined by Guys and Dolls author Damon Runyon.

“It can be hard for newcomers to follow because there’s so much going on at once on the rink,” Cho Cold says.

Victory is not determined, as some might think, by the “last woman standing.” Like most full-contact sports, roller derby involves overcoming obstacles to get from point A to point B, relying on an offense and a defense: the nimblest skater is the team’s “jammer” who scores points by making laps, assisted by burly “blockers” and a “pivot.” Using practiced moves such as “The Waitress,” teammates spin each other around in a sort of centrifugal do-si-do.

“We have to learn proper ways to fall,” says Babe E. Quakes, who demonstrates the “Rock Star,” dropping to her knees like Elvis; “Doggy Style,” on all fours; the “Baseball Slide”; and basic one-knee maneuvers. “If we sprawl spread-eagle, that’s called the ‘Ragdoll,’” she says, collapsing in a heap of blond braids and fringe.

Bumps, bruises, blisters, and sore muscles throb after every practice, the rollergirls say, despite padded gear and mouth-guards.

“We had one broken leg, but that was a fluke, a freaky fall,” Cho Cold says.

At one point during the scrimmage, Amyn Atcha takes a spill. After an outburst of smack-talking to rouse her up, the rink goes ominously quiet as another skater rushes to her aid and, a few moments later, shouts, “It’s OK – it’s just her ass! Get an ice-pack.”

The Burn City Rollers have traveled to Mobile, Baton Rouge, and Knoxville to compete, with the goal of eventually joining what they call the “big dogs” at the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. They also are excited about a summer trip to Oklahoma City to tackle the banked rink where Drew Barrymore filmed “Whip It.”

In the meantime, the ladies will hold their own end-of-season awards banquet. “We get to dress up – I mean, in an actual dress,” a skater named 9 Lb. Hammer says. They give each other trophies in categories such as “Hardest Hit,” “Most Likely to Kill Another Team Member,” and “Smelliest Calves.”

Cooling down with a few crunches and push-ups, the sweaty skaters, with mascara streaking, start planning the ceremony’s menu. “If we’re going to have tea, we’ll definitely need scones,” Cho Cold says, turning dainty, without irony, for just a moment.