My Secret Past Life In Midtown Atlanta – As a Toys For Tots Hustler

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

A Story of Romance and Love by Chance

For an Era Sorely Missing in Love and Romance.

Yesterday morning, I was tossing socks, fresh out of the clothes dryer, into the upper left-hand corner drawer of a dresser that I had owned since age 8.  At 7:15 in the morning, the drawer refused to close.  I was not amused.  After breakfast, I went back upstairs with a variety of tools to get the historic drawer to close.  Eventually, by prying two sides simultaneously, the drawer began to slide in, but suddenly a post card fluttered to the floor.

I picked it up. The postcard was from Miami Beach. Oh my gosh!  It was that tropically hot invitation for a six week long summer frolic from Teresa! At age 20, I had hidden the X-rated postcard from the wandering eyes of my mother under the drawer then forgotten about it for the entire time since then . . . completely unknown to an ex-wife, a forgotten number of girlfriends and the prying eyes of gendarmes, employed by the Party, looking for dirt on me.  We will get back to the card’s message later.

Photos taken in photography class required for fellowship in Mexico

Midtown solicitations

Long long ago, in a land faraway, Midtown Atlanta was the nation’s largest hippie colony. Haight Asbury in San Francisco received all the media attention, but Midtown had over 38,000 residents.  Most of them, were college students, pretending to be hippies.

Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps sponsored the Toys For Tots Campaign each December. However, the Marines were afraid to go door-to-door in Midtown for fear that some winsome hippie girl would cast her charms on them and turn them into happy peace demonstrators.  So that terrifying task was awarded to the Navy ROTC Battalion at Georgia Tech.  Fortunately, we were armored by being required to wear our winter, Navy blue, dress uniform. I mean, like Navy officer’s uniforms are sharp. Back then, when American women were normal, they would always swoon over uniformed Naval officers. The suits even turned an ugly ogre like me into a movie star.

Navy ROTC in winter dress uniforms

There was a problem, though.  Some idiot Marine general in Washington decided that we should go early on a Sunday morning to knock on doors.  In a neighborhood filled with young people, most of whom would be asleep, stoned, drunk, hungover or enjoying a Sunday morning delight, you don’t knock on doors at 8:30 AM to solicit donations.  Worst still,  most of the residents thought we were, unusually, smartly uniformed . . . Atlanta cops.

My first assignment, as a Freshman Midshipman, was Argonne Ave.  Knocking on five doors straight produced only the sounds of silence. On the sixth door, a townhouse, I heard the sound of someone racing down the stairs and then out the rear door.  Then I heard a gal say, “Wait a minute!” so I waited. 

Alas!  A winsome lass opened the door slowly and asked if I was a policeman. A wall of marijuana smoke hit my face.  I responded, “No!  I am a Navy Midshipman from Georgia Tech, seeking donations for the Toys for Tots.”  Her only clothing was a man’s shirt with only two buttons fastened.  Very little was left to the imagination. I am not worthy! I am not worthy! 

Wait a minute . . . the face was familiar.  “Barbie?”   She responded, “Richard?”  I had been slow-dancing with that face six months earlier at Susan Walker’s graduation party.  At the time, though, Barbie was very nice, but determined to save even her lips for a future husband.  Obviously, she had changed a lot in six months.  She eventually confessed that the reason she was scantily dressed was to distract the cops, while her date ran out of the rear of her rental townhouse with her stash of pot. 

She told me that I looked really handsome in a Navy officer’s uniform.   I told her that she would have been the most poplar girl at Lakeshore High School had she worn that shirt to class.  She blushed, smiled wickedly, dropped a $5 bill in the bag and shut the door. That’s the equivalent of $35 today.  Guess it was hush money.

Mansion in Ansley Park Neighborhood

Ansley Park

Not a single house on Argonne donated to the Toys for Tots after leaving Barbie’s place.  So, I decide to move westward to the Ansley Park mansions.  That’s where the old governor’s mansion was.  Ansley Park is next to Colony Square and the Art Museum.

If anyone answered the doorbell at all, it was a maid or butler, who graciously came back with a couple of dollars from the homeowner.  Then I came to a house with many cars parked in the driveway.  There were bound to be donations here.  I rang the doorbell.   A newly famous Hollywood actress opened the door then smiled at me sincerely. She was wearing a crimson choir robe. She had just starred in a blockbuster movie and is still highly respected, although making few movies now.  She introduced herself as if I wouldn’t know her. 

Then her boyfriend came to the door, also wearing a black choir robe. He was an actor also, but didn’t last long.  I don’t remember his name.   He told me that they had just finished their service and invited me in for hot apple cider and fruit cake.  Everyone was wearing choir robes with hoods in the back, like a monk’s robe . . . so I figured that it was some sort of independent church, since everyone was being so friendly to me.

I spotted Atlanta’s top local newscaster chatting with WSB’s foxy new weather gal.  There were several women that I had seen on TV shows or in the movies . . . local professional athletes . . . a member of Allman Brothers Band . . . the “beautiful” people.

They were very generous . . . giving me the equivalent today of over $800.  Then I happened to look at the floor.  The carpet in this mansion’s huge living room had been rolled up.  On the wooden floor a pentagram had be created with masking tape.  On the pentagram’s tips were melted candles.  Geez!   This was a Satanic group!   I quickly got out of there before they decided to have me for Sunday dinner!

Teresa’s townhouse on Argonne Ave. in Midtown Atlanta

Toys for boys almost grown up

The next December, my sophomore year at Georgia Tech, I was again assigned to the Midtown neighborhood.  I quickly headed toward the townhouse where Barbie lived, hoping to see her again, dressed only in a man’s shirt . . . but no one answered.  I continued down Argonne Ave. to other houses, but it was the same thing.  Then I came to a large townhouse with a new red Fiat sportscar parked in front.  After I rang the doorbell, I heard a young woman say, “Just a minute.”   A beautiful senorita opened the door, dressed in designer fashions on a Sunday morning.   She asked if I was a policeman.   I told her who I was.  At first, she frowned.

Then she asked me if I had killed peasant farmers in Vietnam.  I told her, “No!”  I was being groomed to build medical centers, schools and water purification plants for poor neighborhoods in countries, where the US Navy had bases.   She said, “Good!” then invited me into the house. 

She then asked me if a I had a special girlfriend.  I said, “No,  there are only 128 gals on the Georgia Tech campus and I have no car.  I have to work all the time in architecture, so it is very difficult for me to meet young women.”  She then asked me if I had eaten breakfast.  I said no again, so she asked if she could cook me a traditional Cuban breakfast.  Of course, I said yes.

I looked around the townhouse.  This senorita reeked of money. All the furniture was new and from France or Italy.  She even had a new-fangled device called a telephone answering machine.  The phone was not even connected to the machine.  Teresa could walk anywhere in house with the phone.  On the walls were anti-war posters and paintings of Latin American peasants. 

Teresa explained that her family was actually French and Taino Indian from Martinique, but her grandfather had moved to Cuba to work for Coca Cola as a sugar buyer.  They had supported the revolution against the corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, but had to leave Cuba quickly and with no money, after Castro started executing people, who had connections with American sugar companies.  The American companies had gained control of most of Cuba’s sugar cane fields, but her father worked for Coca Cola. In the new regime’s eyes, that detail didn’t matter. Fortunately, her father was a longtime friend of Roberto Goizueta, an executive with Coca Cola. Goizueta helped her father develop a Coca Cola franchise in Florida and so now they lived very well.   That was obvious.

For breakfast, we had several tropical fruits, juevos con jamon (scrambled eggs mixed with Cuban ham), lots of Cuban pastries and café con leche.   After breakfast, she lit up a long, skinny Cuban cigar . . . not much bigger in a diameter than a cigarette, but much longer.  She then asked me if I would like some real port wine from Portugal.  I had never even drunk port before and didn’t know what it was, but went along with the flow.  She took off my Navy coat and tie . . . squeezing my biceps in the process!  Hm-m-m. This was turning out to be much more than a charity event.

She was an art student Emory University and a semi-professional dancer.  However, she was a better artist than most of her professors, so was considering a switch to International Affairs, so she could go to work for Coca Cola International.  All the young men that she had met in Atlanta seemed provincial and not the least bit interested in peoples from other cultures. 

Once she started feeling the alcohol from the port, her conversation grew angrier and more aggressive.  Her father had been captured at the Bay of Pigs invasion and one of her uncles killed.  She felt that the US Government had betrayed the Cuban men at the Bay of Pigs.

Then she became angrier as she listed the atrocities committed by the soldiers of Latin American dictators, who were trained and armed by the US Army . . . like she was blaming the US Navy and even me for those things. She was losing it, so I was looking for an opportunity to leave . . . then the next thing I know, she was kissing me rather than screaming at me.

Well, I ended up spending the rest of the weekend with her.  We danced for hours as she taught me Latin American dances, took walks in Piedmont Park and did other things.  She took me to a Cuban restaurant Saturday night, where the staff treated her like a princess and assumed that I was her fiancé, since she had always before dined alone. 

Peachtree Christian Church – Atlanta, GA

I had noticed in the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Peachtree Christian Church, which was near Midtown, was having a Christmas Cantata.  Their choir director was Robert Shaw, who also directed the famous Robert Shaw Chorale.  It sounded like a wonderful way to end a wonderful weekend, because I felt that God had blessed me that Saturday morning.  Teresa said that she had never been in a Protestant church, but loved American Christmas carols. So, from the restaurant, she drove me to the church.

Of all things, Georgia Tech Dean of Students, Jim Dull, greeted us at the door.  He was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity like me and in a few months, would play a key role in a totally implausible chain of events that would put me in Mexico a year and a half later. 

It was an incredibly beautiful service.  Several times, Teresa shed tears and squeezed my hands . . . I thought because of the beauty of the music.  She whispered in my ear. There has been a hole in my head, my heart and in my soul. Thank you so much. And to think, this is just our beginning.

When we went outside after the service, snow flurries were coming down.  She drove me over to the Tech campus and then said that she had never been inside a Georgia Tech fraternity. She dropped $100 in my Toys For Tots bag as I got out of the car. After we went into the Lambda Chi Alpha living room, she unleashed a profound display of public affection.  

After she left, my stunned fraternity brothers pounced on me to learn where I had been all weekend,  why I was wearing a Navy uniform on a Sunday night and most importantly, who was the goddess, whose arms had been wrapped around me.

The next weekend, she said that she had an out of town for a political meeting, but would pick me up to late Saturday afternoon to drive me over to her house. That never happened and we didn’t have cellular phones back then.  I was never able to reach the fancy answering machine at her house.  Eventually, I hitched a ride with a friend over to Midtown. A neighbor said that she and the car had disappeared just before Christmas. He speculated that because she had a lot of money for a 19 year old girl, she was a drug dealer and had been “knocked off” by some other drug dealer. About a month later her belongings were put out on the edge of the street by the landlord. That information did not fill my heart with joy.

Months later, I received a terse note from her saying that she had been arrested for something she did at Fort Benning, GA and had been put in a federal jail.  Her father’s money kept her out of a long prison sentence, after she had been in jail for two months.  She had not been back to Emory and would be going to college in Florida the next fall.  

About a year later, she sent me the X-rated post card.  She was no longer dating the Cuban guy in Miami (what Cuban guy?) and her parents were going to Europe for about six weeks in the summer.  In 1968, another wealthy Miami girl at Emory University, Barbara Jane Mackle, had been kidnapped and buried alive.  Her parents were going to give Teresa a large amount of money to hire security guards for her, while they were gone.   Instead, Teresa proposed that I be hired as her security guard with benefits.  The graphic and artistic descriptions of those benefits should have caused the card to be seized by postal authorities, but I guess the postal workers enjoyed seeing them also.

The money that she was offering was triple what I could make in construction . . . but alas, I had been awarded a fellowship to study Pre-Columbian architecture in Mexico that summer.  I never heard from Teresa again.  My girlfriend in Mexico was amazed that a gringo could do Latin-style dancing, better than any Mexican guy.  I could never tell her the reason why.

After graduating from Tech and working in Sweden, I returned home to Atlanta and soon joined Peachtree Christian Church.  There I continued my friendship with Dean Dull and eventually became a deacon of the church, before moving to Asheville, NC . . . but that is not the end of the story.

Rich Mountain Wilderness Area – Georgia

Flash forward to mid-November 2009.  My house had been illegally foreclosed upon on November 3rd by an out-of-state company that did not own my mortgage.  They bought the mortgage from its illegal owners, AFTER auctioning it to FannieMae.  Two weeks later, I had been awarded an $18,000 architectural contract and FannieMae had offered me a low interest mitigation loan.  I was taking a hike with my beloved three dogs in the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area of Gilmer County to celebrate that turn of events.

A black, chauffer driven Mercedes Benz passed me on the gravel section of Cherry Log Road.  I noticed a woman staring intently at me through a rear tinted window.   The Mercedes stopped, then backed up to be beside me.  The rear window opened to reveal a beautiful senora staring at me intently, as if she was in deep thought, and occasionally blowing smoke from a long, skinny cigar. 

My mind went back to its deepest recesses then remembered.  I asked, “Are you Teresa?”  She smiled, nodded affirmative and shed a few tears.  She then pointed to her heart and then her head and then pointed to me.  She blew me a kiss, stared at me intently for awhile then told the chauffer to drive on in Spanish.   Four weeks later I would be homeless, living in a tent and starting yet another chapter in my life.

This video contains the most famous Latin style dance ever filmed by Hollywood.  It is dedicated to Teresa, wherever she is.

9 Comments

  1. Those little mementos from the Long Ago and Far Away can transport us back to those times. We are light years removed from them now. In fact I feel like I am in an alternate universe now. How nice to read of your story of Love and Romance and Chance. I agree with you Richard. We are sorely missing it in this era. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was living in Asheville when it was filmed. I watched some of the filming, but did not see any dancing. During that era, The Last of the Mohicans was filmed on the upper pasture of our farm in the Reems Creek Valley.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, I remember that it was also filmed near here. Very cool to learn that fun fact Richard. Another Long Ago and Far Away moment. It’s one of those who knew. It’s like years ago I worked for people that had a helicopter that was used in the Chuck Norris Movie Delta Force 2. They owned the local heavy equipment company that cleared roads and assisted on the mountain set here in E.TN. I worked in the local mall at the time of filming. On a super slow summer day I looked up and saw there was Chuck with 2 bodyguards strolling past my shop and on through the mall. It was so slow no one even noticed him except the clerk at GNC and me. He asked for an autograph but got a handshake instead.
    Oh the Long Ago and Far Away from that alternate universe from today.

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  4. A dirty little secret about “Dirty Dancing.” I was living in Asheville, when they filmed Dirty Dancing. The call for extras specifically stated that they should look “Mediterranean” (Jewish) That was no problem in Asheville, but at the Virginia filming location there were virtually no Jewish residents. So much of the non-speaking cast were actually Melungeons, who were partially descended from 17th century Sephardic Jewish miners and colonists. Sephardim have different shaped heads than the Ashkenazi Jews. For parts, involving a little speaking, the director transported amateurish Jewish actors, such as the elderly thieves from Asheville to SW Virginia. The blond co-star in the movie was an architecture client of mine and former Miss North Carolina. I designed a townhouse project for her. I think she was a Presbyterian.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And that’s the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would say.
      As for the men looking the sharp dressed men in their uniforms yes I saw many coming of age during Vietnam era. The gals definitely swooned.
      Here’s to all those sharp dressed military personnel men and women that have given so much during time In the service of others. We are fixing to remember those that served for the USA. But there was always warriors from the past that I know made the ladies swoon. They were of all nationalities. Traveling through the ages of the world and dressed in their own type of dress that set them apart and made them look handsome and word the women. Here’s to all of them that have lead to us. Wish I could have seen you all decked out Richard. I’m sure I would’ve being swooning too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Howdy, WHAT A WONDERFUL LIFE! Went brush popping today…new starting point…birdman right there waiting…thought I had cut my fingers when I picked him up. Found two small groups yesterday…pieces to arrowhead collectors. They will make interesting display units. Balmy 96* today.

    On Thu, May 21, 2020 at 12:32 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner A > Story of Romance and Love by Chance For an Era Sorely Missing in Love and > Romance. Yesterday morning, I was tossing socks, fresh out of the clothes > dryer, into the upper left-hand corner dra” >

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dirty Dancing was filmed in Asheville in 1987. I watched it being filmed, but did not get to see until after we had moved to Virginia later than year. The minor actors and a lot of the extras were just regular folks, you’d see on the street. The blonde lady, who played Patrick Swayze’s first dance partner was an architecture client of mine. She was a former Miss North Carolina.

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