Once, Patton had a dream -- to preach his fire and brimstone love of underground film from the pulpit of his Blast Off video store in Little Five Points.
But now he's just one of many: locked in a 9-to-5 job, a resident of the suburbs, the owner of a 401K plan. It may be happiness, or simply the price of growing up.
"I have no illusions," he says. "When you're in your 20s, everything is star bright park. But when you get older, you become very balanced about the reality and what you have to do. Because Monday morning your ass is going to be back in that desk."
The word "bohemian" -- first used in the 17th century -- initially described gypsies who emigrated from Bohemia to Western Europe. But it was Henri Murger's 1847 play Scenes de la Vie de Boheme that crystallized what "bohemia" looked and felt like. The Slacker of its day, Murger's play described 19th-century Parisians given over to the pleasures of art-making, unconcerned with the future or money.
By the end of Murger's story, his four protagonists -- a painter, a philosopher, a poet and a musician -- have all traded the boho life for a bourgeois one.
Murger's portrait of the shelf-life of the average bohemian is nearly as dire as Patton's: Die of consumption or get a real job.
Middle age comes whether you have planned for it or not, and it has arrived with a vengeance in bohemia, where formerly worryless slackers are being transformed into real world adults. Suddenly they're sweating retirement accounts, medical problems, and the great existential question: If you haven't "made it" by your 30s, will you ever?
"In our culture, it's hard to be an outsider in a positive way as you get older," says Pagan Kennedy, who documented the phenomenon of "maturing hipsters" in her 1997 "field guide" Pagan Kennedy's Living. "Outsiders, rebels, dissenters are supposed to be cute indie kids, with dewy skin covered in tattoos."
But people who stake their lifestyles on rejecting society's rule often reject that rule as well.
People like Thomas Tulis, 42, a painter and photographer who rents a Little Five Points apartment the size of a toll booth. He's lived below the poverty line for nearly two decades, but he remains convinced the artist's life is the only one for him. In the service of his art, Tulis has dispensed with the following creature comforts: eating out, food that does not come in cans, a relationship, children, financial security, savings, a retirement account, adequate living space and entertainment.
"For some people, it would be a real struggle," says Tulis. "I've had artist friends that come in here and say, 'How do you live here?'"
The chaos of an entire existence crammed into one room erupts into Mt. Vesuvius piles of laundry and cardboard liquor boxes. The one concession to "decor" are Tulis' photographs -- images of suburban development, club kids and Civil War re-enactors, which institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the High have purchased. His photographs and paintings fill nearly every inch of wall space and compete for premium floor space as well.
"I haven't found a woman who's willing to deal with this, because I sleep right there," Tulis concedes, indicating a piece of foam -- his bed -- mashed behind an enormous hyper-realist painting of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.
"Usually I don't have that painting there," he says. "It's usually in my bathroom."
Tulis says he's blessed to have so few needs or wants. "I mean, I've been eating peas and bologna sandwiches for 10-15 years -- the same thing over and over. Cause it's like I always tell myself ... I don't eat well, but my camera ... I feed my camera all the time."
At 37, local filmmaker Milt Thomas, knows all about putting art before creature comforts. For six years he courted abject poverty, tested his sanity and mortgaged his house (twice) to make a film. Working as a waiter to cover his bills, he staged elaborate fundraisers and borrowed money to complete his picture.
Finally, in 2001 his feature-length silent film Claire, made on a vintage hand-cranked camera, premiered at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts. When the film made its West Coast debut in June 2002 at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, there was a Variety critic in the audience who later wrote a rave review in the industry bible, calling the film a "poignant viewing experience." That review ignited a flurry of interest from Hollywood production companies, from actor Anthony Edward's Aviator Films to Steven Soderbergh's Section Eight.
One day while Thomas was having lunch at Eats, he received a phone call from director Richard Donner's (Lethal Weapon, Conspiracy Theory) "people" asking to see his next script. Thomas is rushing to complete it, aware that he has one "go" card available with which to approach these Hollywood movers and shakers.
That flurry of interest and faith in his vision has reassured Thomas that he will be a filmmaker, whatever the price.
But for every Thomas Tulis and Milt Thomas, there's a Sam Patton.
Life was good for Patton when he first came to Little Five Points.
He had a significant collection of cult movies and underground films, enough to open his esoteric video store, attached to the back of A Cappella Books. Now the site of the restaurant Teaspace, Blast Off was the definition of a hole in the wall located in a side alley.
It was 1991 and Blast Off was like a party on banker's hours. Patton didn't even have to do anything. The freaks, the babes, the hippies, the retro cult all came to him. In those days, all Patton had to do was kick back with a briny vodka martini, a whiskey or two or three or four and shoot the shit about Mamie Van Doren or who killed Kennedy. From his soapbox, he espoused the scurvy charms of cult movie legends like Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ed Wood.
An amateur shutterbug, Patton found plenty of strippers and shy secretaries through the store, who would willingly pose for him in his Helmut Newton-meets-Bunny Yeager cheesecake photography. Boyfriends seethed, but Patton was having the time of his life. It may have been as close as anyone in Atlanta has ever gotten to a bohemian paradise. Patton's lifestyle was defined by a willful overthrow of his parents' values and their concerns about savings accounts and retirement funds, lawn care and real estate.
One morning, Patton came into the store and a customer asked him about the two blondes he had been with the night before.
"What blondes?" he asked.
If life was that good, why couldn't he remember any of it?
By 1995 the glitter was starting to wear off Patton's sideshow. The clowns, once so jolly and absurd, were now canting and reeling like Bowery drunks. The pretty dancing girls showed wrinkles and yellow teeth beneath their makeup. His insides were "croaking out," poisoned on a "hell diet of booze and chili dogs," Jolt colas, Butterfingers, takeout from Zesto's -- scarfed by the sackful -- and Wild Turkey 101.
Then one day, Patton was diagnosed with diabetes. He remembers it well. It was the same day he heard the news that Ella Fitzgerald's legs were amputated because of her severe diabetes. Like most residents on boho's what-me-worry block, he had no health insurance.
Despite his health condition, the drinking and stress that inflamed his diabetes snowballed. And his compadres? They began to die or disappear: heroin, booze, L.A., N.Y. Others grew up and found real jobs, had kids, took out mortgages. Meanwhile, Patton was raking cash by the shovelfuls into the bottomless money pit of a business that was consuming more than it made. Money was disappearing into a sinkhole of bills and vices.
Patton began to feel like the last guy at the dance. His swinging Dean Martin pulpit of mixology was transformed from party central to prison.
The neighborhood was changing, too. Little Five's counterculture roots were dissipating with yuppie progress. It was becoming overrun with an influx of Virginia Highland-style boutiques, loft developments and particleboard neo-Craftmans and neo-Victorians retailing in the $600,000-$800,000 zone.
And the customers were changing. To Patton, even the crackpots began to look good compared to these new kids on the block who couldn't even manage freaky, but were just banal, limp and tiring with their incessant demands for There's Something About Mary and their politically correct humorlessness.
"It's hard to be a misanthrope and be in customer service at the same time," Patton recalls thinking.
Then there were the guys with guns, who liked to wave them in Patton's face and ask for his till. One night two men blindsided him and the only thing that kept Patton and his cash intact was the pistol he drew on the bastards. One guy ran, but the other one stared Patton down and told him, "I'll be back."
Welcome to the mindset of the middle class. No longer the Man-hating, hot-rodding kid of his youth, Patton came to appreciate the cops who stopped by the store to shoot the breeze, ask him to put on Russ Meyer tittie movies and who watched his back. He was beginning to feel like some kind of fucking citizen.
And then, in 1998 something happened that closed the lid on the coffin he was living in, something worse than the escalating diabetes and the inability to maintain his on-again / off-again relationship with a woman he cared about. Patton had a glimpse into his own future, and lo, it was not good.
People called them "bumsicles:" the poor, lost cases who wind up like Jack Nicholson's grimacing corpse in that final image of The Shining.
While Sam Jr. had been quaffing vodka martinis like there was no tomorrow, his biological father Sam "Sticks" Tardy was dying of drink. The former Marine, jazz musician, Benzedrine freak from whom Patton must have inherited his gonzo streak and his love of pistols was another dead bum, frozen in the West Texas cold.
Patton wore the imprint of his biological father on his scarred finger, which he'd caught in Daddy-O's car door when he was 2. Sticks left home not long after that. Patton never got to know his father, and he felt gypped. He began to wonder if maybe he was sporting Sticks' biological destiny too.
Like the worst kind of movie cliche, it was a woman who helped guide Patton from the boho highway toward a strip of stability in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Not one of those dream vixens with the coal black Betty Page bangs and a heart closed tight from bad daddies and rotten uncles. This was a nice, regular girl with impeccable manners and the kind of brisk, squared-away attitude that could put a good scrub on his soul. They met in a college class on Hitchcock years before, but it had taken Patton a long while to realize Mary was film and destiny collided. In 1998, they got married.
In January 2000 Blast Off closed, a casualty of Patton's sheer exhaustion and drained finances. The seductive, delirious, orgiastic fictions of a million cult movies and film noir plots had paved his soul with glamorous possibility. But closing the store ended all those reveries. It was surprisingly easy to walk away, Patton says, especially when all that his life there represented was loss: of health, of money, of friends.
At 44, Patton is beginning a new life.
Deep in the heart of Dunwoody, Patton now lives in a gated apartment complex whose connotations of normality are so shameful, he is reluctant to even part with an address, lest curiosity seekers anxious to drive by with their sneers and cracks about "how mightily the artsy hath fallen" darken his doorstep.
He embarrassingly admits that he now cares that he has a 401K plan and health insurance at his corporate job, a job as blanketed in self-imposed secrecy as the suburban apartment where he lives.
Patton is trying to make up for lost time. The past suddenly looks like a big, expensive mistake. He could have applied himself and studied geology. At this very moment, he could be a geologist "in the Gulf of Mexico looking at salt domes for petroleum companies and making six figures," he says. "But I was like, 'Ahhhh, I hate math. Let's go get a beer.'"
Patton tries to reassure himself. Maybe normalcy can be satisfying for different reasons. Maybe the calm and banality can soothe the soul of a man stressed out from years of drinking and percolating "fight or flight" responses over money.
But then again, perhaps Murger made giving up the boho ghost too easy. Despite all the hardships -- the hand-to-mouth existence, the lack of health benefits and retirement plans, the friends running for the high water of financial security -- there's one thing a bourgeois salary still can't buy: freedom. It's the freedom from obligation and responsibilities that allows Thomas Tulis to spend eight to 10 hours a day doing nothing but working on his art. It's the freedom Milt Thomas strives for, to one day give up waiting tables and pursue his filmmaking full time.
Patton may have joined the legions of the staid, the regular, the normal, but he's discovered something that they share with all of those struggling bohos. Even as they sit in their cars on I-285 or eat lunch at the food court, they are probably dreaming of freedom, too. Because letting go of dreams is never easy.
For now, Patton has resigned himself to a small sliver of white-bread life. But as he floats, stogie in mouth, in the buoying chlorine blue of his Dunwoody apartment complex pool late at night, he thinks. Like all the other regular Joes out there, with health benefits and savings accounts, Patton ponders the steps that will take him from his present into his future. But he still thinks about the past, too. He thinks back to all the crazy stories and characters at Blast Off. He remembers a time when every day was a fresh adventure. It's a story he thinks could trump Clerks.
Maybe he'll write a screenplay ...
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