Pio Nono Avenue is a backbone of modern Macon. From Seven Bridges to Stanislaus, it stretches from a south side swamp to some of midtown’s most treasured estates. Though its Italian name gets mangled by locals and visitors alike, the road is a 5-mile-long reflection of who we are and how we live.
JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF MACON: PART 2
Many just trying to stay safe on the ‘roughest side of town’
The man has probably been in business on Pio Nono Avenue longer than anyone alive.
The first thing he wanted to know when I told him I was walking up and down the road for a newspaper story was whether I was insane.
“You got your life jacket on?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said.
“You better get it before you start walking out this road,” he said.
In the late 1950s, Paul Freeman opened Tall Paul’s Campers half a mile down from where Interstate 75 now sweeps across Pio Nono. His advertisements back then frequently featured his trademark phrase “We Gottem.”
At 84, Freeman remembers when the lower reaches of Pio Nono were a dirt road. Now the speed limit is 50 mph. There are no sidewalks.
The day I visited Tall Paul’s at the end of April, the company’s front-office greeter, an elderly basset hound named Phil, was polishing off the remains of Freeman’s lunch -- takeout from Captain D’s.
Freeman didn’t have much to say about what Pio Nono and the people along it mean to Macon.
Perhaps that is too deep a subject to ponder.
Or, say, too shallow.
Maybe I was on a fool’s errand trying to divine meaning from a 5.3-mile strip of asphalt.
‘Selling our souls’
There is a string of ranch-style houses and split-levels across the road from Freeman’s dealership. Some have been converted to businesses.
One up the street is a massage parlor. A couple of years back a man had a heart attack there and died mid rubdown.
When I asked Freeman what had become of his once-country road, he deemed it “a place you can get killed mighty easy.”
He was talking about the highway whirlwind.
“I keep saying that, I know,” he said. “But it’s true. It’s a dangerous place out there. It’s hard to get out of here just to go home.”
Freeman’s was an honest perspective.
For him, one thing stands out about the road that for more than half a century has delivered his livelihood: traffic. Curious for a man who has made a living selling recreational vehicles, the very conveyances designed to carry us into and, then, to locales out of traffic’s reach.
Indeed, traffic is often the first thing we mention when people ask us, “How was your trip?”
We tend to skimp on the scenery. Especially the parts we cruise past daily; the sights that, for better or worse, define our corner of the world. We bypass so much.
Faceless freeways lead us places faster than ever, even in our hometowns. It is human nature to want to get somewhere quickly. Convenience comes at a price, however.
Think what you will of bypassed neighborhoods -- good riddance, you may say -- but communities are divided and defined by their thoroughfares. It’s easy to lose sight of areas and the people in them we no longer see.
Thirty years ago, there was much debate over the widening of a nearly two-mile swath of Pio Nono. In the end, more than two dozen families north of Eisenhower Parkway were forced to sell their homes. Then-Macon City Council President Eugene Dunwody, who opposed the widening, feared the measure’s broader ramifications.
Something Dunwody said then still resonates: “I think we’re selling our souls to the damn automobile.”
Perhaps it was no surprise that a 2011 video of a homeless man panhandling along I-71 in Ohio tallied tens of millions of Internet views. The ragged man’s name was Ted Williams. A Columbus Dispatch reporter rolled up on him at an interchange and recorded Williams, whose self-described “God-given gift of voice” bore, as the newspaper put it, “the sound of a fairy tale.”
The video made a universal connection, in part, because we’ve all seen guys bumming change at intersections, making the most of the pauses in our traffic. We have all no doubt wondered, “What’s this guy’s story?” before driving off and promptly forgetting him.
I would not run across any voice-over marvels during my three hikes up and down Pio Nono, or on dozens of trips there by car. But I would happen upon a hard-living man who for nearly two years had made his home under the bridge at I-75.
Life there was peaceful, he told me.
“You don’t know how it is,” he said, “till you try it.”
‘Every city goes down’
Riding into Macon on I-75 from the south, the Pio Nono interchange is the first exit. Heading the other way, it is the last.
The cityscape there is something of a Waffle House riviera. Less than half a mile apart, a pair of the ubiquitous eateries with their butter-pat-yellow signs flank the freeway.
The exit is also home to a McDonald’s, a KFC, an Arby’s and a once-Days Inn. There is also a hodgepodge of shopping plazas, one of which, Pio Nono Plaza at Rocky Creek Road, predates the interstate.
A lazy drainage ditch that skirts the shopping center’s parking lot swelled into a torrent during the Flood of ’94. Water swamped the lot. A man and his girlfriend cruising through in a Chevy pickup drowned when the truck floated away, sank and got sucked through an 8-foot pipe beneath Rocky Creek Road. Theirs were the only Macon deaths in the Great Flood.
In back of the McDonald’s, in a tucked-away strip mall near the ditch where the couple’s truck came to rest, the sign at the Git R Done Laundromat generates its share of yuks. Some snap photos.
The woman who runs it, Elaine Mollenkopf, keeps the door locked most of the time. Unless you’re standing outside with laundry, odds are you won’t get inside.
Mollenkopf, 57, grew up in Macon. She remembers when the McDonald’s opened, when that part of town was on the come. Banks, car washes, record shops, video-rental marts and a library would follow. Now she can sit at her desk and sometimes “watch a drug deal go down” in the parking lot.
“I guess every city goes down at some point. You just kind of try to stay safe,” Mollenkopf said.
She likes the new Bell Foods, a supermarket on the other side of the ditch that used to be a Piggly Wiggly. “It’s the cleanest,” she said. “Every can is turned the right way.”
“Then you’ve got all your Waffle Houses around here,” Mollenkopf added. “What more can you ask for?”
I mentioned that I’d seen a homeless man’s bed roll -- a pile of musty blankets and comforters -- stashed up in the girders of the I-75 overpass that spans Pio Nono.
She told me about a nearby homeless camp hidden in the brush and baby pines at the foot of the freeway embankment behind a shuttered bank.
I said I’d check it out.
“Yeah,” Mollenkopf said, “there’s probably some interesting stories.”
‘Not too good’
There was no door to knock on so I hollered.
The homeless camp was deserted.
It was maybe 50 feet below the southbound side of the expressway.
The place reminded me of the forts my friends and I used to make in the woods as kids, carving them out of briar patches and mimosa thickets with hoes and sling blades.
The dirt floor was swept clean. There were chairs, a grill, a blue tarp, a clothesline, a fire barrel, piles of blankets. Parts of it were carpeted. It appeared to be a haven for squatters, hitchhikers and the like.
The secret spot lies along Pio Nono’s east side, just up from one of the Waffle Houses and the KFC.
I poked around a few minutes then tromped through the weeds toward Arby’s and civilization.
Across the road at Pio Nono Plaza, I took a break and sat down on a retaining wall made of crossties. The wall fends off the drainage-ditch stream that flows beneath five lanes of Pio Nono at the parking lot’s edge.
I picked up a half-eaten apple and tossed it in the reddish-brown water below. Minnows flickered. I counted seven old tires and a Coors Light can. Graffiti spray-painted on a culvert wall beneath the road declared that someone named Daniel’s rear end had once been “in this water.”
Behind me across the parking lot, an unkempt man was plunked down near the front door of a Hispanic grocery. He waved and I headed over.
“How’s it going?” I said.
“Not too good.”
‘Roughest side of town’
His name was David Glass.
The bedroll beneath the bridge -- “my hut,” he called it -- belonged to him.
As for the campsite in the trees, he said he’d built it himself to share with passers-through. A while back, he said, the fire department showed up. People on the interstate had complained of smoke. Glass was grilling chicken.
He told me he was 62, a seventh-grade dropout.
He’d been a regular on the streets of south Macon, Pio Nono in particular, since about 2011.
He said he used to live in Lynmore Estates, that he got by each month on a $730 government check. That, I presumed, and whatever change folks tossed in the plastic Burger King cup at his side.
“This is the roughest side of town there are,” Glass said. “I see people on drugs. There’s a lot of prostitution, and a lot of people that’ll just as soon kill you as look at you.”
He didn’t have any top teeth that I could tell. His wavy gray hair matched a mess of whiskers. His body odor dang-near glowed. He hadn’t bathed in more than a month.
“The Lord says there always will be poor and needy,” Glass said. “That’s something you got to accept.”
He sleeps with a Bible.
I asked whether the rumble of traffic on the bridge above or the whoosh of cars underneath kept him awake.
“You get a chance to think,” Glass said. “You get away from all the riffraff. You get up under there where it’s quiet and you got time to really get your mind on reality.”
He’d learned there is more to life than drugs. He said he hadn’t had a drink in 10 years. “A good cold beer ... would kill me,” he said.
Years ago, in a fight, a guy with a tire tool nearly did. Glass said up to then he’d worked construction. Now he had been reduced to dumpster diving.
A couple of years back, according to the unverifiable story he told me, he found $3,000 in a wallet. The billfold was in a trash bin behind Waffle House. Glass got in touch with the wallet’s owner, a preacher from Jonesboro. The preacher told Glass he’d been looking everywhere for the wallet. He agreed to meet at the Waffle House.
After the preacher came and counted his money, he rewarded Glass.
“Gave me a dollar,” Glass said. “I looked at him and gave it back. I told him he might need it worse than I do.”
Just then a woman named Lisa strolled past.
“What’s up, buddy?” she asked Glass.
Lisa used to be a housekeeper at the Liberty Inn, the former Days Inn near the off-ramp at Glass’ bridge. She checks on him from time to time when she sees him curled up under the interstate overpass.
When she left, Glass told her he loved her.
“Love you, too,” Lisa said.
Before long, another woman walked up.
Glass recognized her from his younger days.
“When we gonna get married?” he asked.
“Never,” she said.
Glass didn’t have much in the way of philosophical insight to add to my story. He seemed supremely unimpressed with my little journey up Pio Nono.
He did, however, share a pair of survival tips: stay out of the road and eat at Subway.
“You can get a $5 footlong for $5.35 -- and believe me, one will last you all day,” Glass said. “Then I’ll go back to my hut and sleep.”