I Survived Thanksgiving 1991 (But Barely): Part One

By Shannon Scott

No, this won’t be the usual Thanksgiving story. Not at all. Its not about foodstuff memories or family ones really, but crime. We hear a lot about crime don’t we? One of my favorite books is “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoesvsky. Its so brilliant and such a peek into “the criminal mind,” I think it should be standard reading for every police department in the world. If anything it shows how good people can do bad things and how human nature can be corrupted and free will has much to do with everything, even if one’s “environment” has an influence.

The Young Fyodor

The Young Fyodor

Dostoesvsky was also a criminal. Or at least in the eyes of the state. Condemned to die for “anti-government activities” in Russia in 1849. And talk about a close one and a “Thanksgiving,” — literally as he was bound to a post in front of a firing squad and after the words, “Ready” and “Aim” had been said? Before the word “Fire” could be shouted to forever dispatch him, he was suddenly reprieved. Can we say “WOW” enough here?

I mention this to make the reader curious about his life, but really because I too have had some very close brushes with mortality. And not through agents of the state motivated by political ends, but street level thugs with weapons in search of their next fix. Its also true that far worse stories can be told than my own. Mine are probably an average day in Chicago these days so apologies to them in advance. But with crime in the headlines all of the time, if just because it keeps the sheeple in a state of chaos for the media & government’s sake, I thought I would tell you my stories to show you that in spite of it all, I see crime as the exception to life and not the rule. I bear no grudges, do not live in a state of paranoia and fear. I live my life in spite of the headlines and all of the chatter about “crime.” I don’t walk around blind but I have common sense on my side and am not obsessed with the word “safety” like so much of our ridiculous society is. Safety is a tool of the social engineers to control society and good people have fallen into the trappings of this mentality. There are no guarantees in this life on a rock spinning around in space and NONE of the politicos and neo-cons can ever cure crime or make you 100% infallibly “Safe.” But you bet, they’re happy to take all of your freedoms and your income as they sell you on the idea. But I digress.

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Worst of Human Spirit, Rep Peter King

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In 1991, Savannah had the highest murder rate per-capita in the USA. That too is somewhat of a convoluted idea to drive fear or create shock, but in general, a gang called The Jivens Gang had merited some of the atmosphere by making the rule of joining their gang, to kill a white person. You could cut the tension in town with a knife. Now, not all 59 people murdered that year were white for sure, but it was an alarming number of dead people considering the small size of the city and yes, was not an ordinary context of random killings, but many (some say 21 or more), were part of a club’s initiation as it were. Making things further difficult for the authorities was the fact that the gang’s leader? Was a 16 year old named Ricky Jivens, Jr and he had perfect attendance in school. He came from a well known Savannah family with a lot of good people inside of it, but he was without question, it’s blackest sheep. Small time compared to a bigger underworld operation, but relative to Savannah’s size, a true operator with the usual guns, drugs, boats, cars and all of the rest. Although unknown to me at the time, I was co-workers and friends with one of his captains, and through him I got the sense that Jivens was a born leader, his crew very loyal and he paid them well. He liked the fact that he could keep the authorities guessing with his “good guy” position, and surrounded himself with others who shared this appearance. It was great deception and at the same time, made it all more duplicitous and culpable. Its one thing if you’re a cold blooded killer and you wear it. Which Jivens could be depending on the situation. Its another thing if you play a kind of Hip Hop school boy, go to church, buy your momma nice things, and then use all of that to disguise the evils. I would say less the youth thing, Ricky Jivens knew what he was doing. He was cunning and he incited murder between gym class and Sophomore chemistry.

Ricky Jivens, Jr

Ricky Jivens, Jr

As many know, I grew up in rural Illinois. I’m still thankful that I knew a time when you could leave doors unlocked and walk your streets unmolested. I pray that is still true in places. Yet, I realize today that it made me naive. Moving to Savannah was criminal culture shock but I didn’t know it yet. When my parents and I first visited this town to explore The Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), I remember we stayed at The DeSoto Hilton downtown. It was Spring, balmy, azaleas everywhere. I’ve always been a voyeur, day dreamer and excitement of new places usually transfers to my legs needing to go places. So one night while they slept, I awoke and not even bothering to put my contact lenses in, I started walking in a direction. In today’s city, I’d be on Savannah’s Westside in the “burgeoning” or “revitalization” areas, i.e, the hood of recent past. But in 1988? It was still very much Da’Hood. I’m sure I got a lot of looksies from the locals but I wasn’t thinking. I was just “feeling” my way around and mixing it up with the night. I’m pretty sure I thought I was invisible and yes, its a wonder I wasn’t hurt or killed. Eventually a very confused policeman drove up to me as to make matters worse, I was walking in the street and he said, “What are you doing here?” I told him I was just out for a walk and why was he asking? He said, “Well there was a robbery nearby and you kind of matched the description…anyway, you shouldn’t be on this side of town.” I took the hint, I was unconscious human bait so headed back to the hotel, parents none-the-wiser. Little did I know that in a year’s time, this was the very same area someone would take a good stab at me.

To present date in Savannah, I’ve had 6 bikes stolen and have been mugged twice by gunpoint. I’ve also foiled a criminal plot or two but more on that later. Thankfully most of my victim hours are past me by 15 years or more and less a bullet from a 9MM coming through my bedroom window a month or so back, life has been pretty peaceful. I can say with some earned legitimacy, yeah, I’ve been “lucky.” Not special, just lucky.

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My Love Nest Violated by 9MM

My first year of SCAD, student of fine arts, I was living the Bohemian dream. I lived in a building called Drayton Towers which today is sold as a hipster condo palace, but then was half SCAD dorm and half Georgia Regional Outlet Patient Program Housing. So yes, the newly arrived suburban insane meets the recently released regulars. We all rode the same elevator and did our laundry together in the laundry room. It was perfect.

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Drayton Towers The Insanity Hotel

I lived in apartment 500 looking off to the East towards Colonial Park Cemetery and the turret dome of the 1860’s Old City Jail. The sunsets were incredible. Eventually I met Theresa at the C&S bank machine in the atrium of the DeSoto Hotel. She lived in Drayton Towers as well and was a Pittsburgh girl who looked more like a Coppertone model than art student. I wasn’t fooled by her supposed love for The Grateful Dead. But I wasn’t complaining. Our courtship started with her doing nude modeling in my dorm room for Life Drawing class and she’d be my off and on gal for the next few years.

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Me (at 19) & Theresa, Drayton Towers before a dinner date

At the time, surrounding downtown in a kind of horseshoe shape on a map, was Section 8 and other HUD housing. Crack cocaine was at a fever pitch, the Jivens Gang was on the move to make social pell-mell. That was the reality of downtown and here Theresa and I were like so many art students, “We’re at art school — Weeeee!” So gullible just minding our own business enjoying hazy youth and college life. A few cares but not many. We still thought we had forever and that time was at our beckon call.

Art students are prone to get the munchies. We were no different. One night it was decided that the Daybreak Cafe at The Day’s Inn was too far to walk and Theresa liked Burger King. God knows why. I didn’t care for fast food at all but she was determined and so we started walking there around 11PM. They closed at 1AM on MLK, Jr. Blvd. Even though a stone’s throw from the Historic District, to get there you had to walk by abandoned buildings, cross Jefferson St or “Happy Hooker Blvd”, and then mosey over a large dimly lit lot before reaching MLK. Some part of me instinctively didn’t like it but Theresa’s bravado exceeded my own at times and in spite of my misgivings, we went there without much thought to the time of night or surroundings. I remember it like it was last night. We had some laughs and maybe an hour later began to amble back home. People think downtown is “quiet” now for the most part. But it was REAL quiet in the late 1980s and early 1990s on a weeknight. As Theresa and I walked around The Thrifty Hardware store through the dimly lit lot and crossed Montgomery St to W. Charlton and made our way into the middle of the intersection at Charlton and Tattnall, I remember it being incredibly dark there. It was like light couldn’t reach this intersection. Or sound.┬áThis spot had us. Our light feet suddenly leadened and we were dead in the middle where the dark hole was the darkest and street lights looked far away. Something startled us. That’s when the figure started moving towards us. It was like a shadow darting out of the shadows and we were in its way.

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Before you could scream “HELP!”

Part Two….Soon.

A Customer’s Special Gift

By Shannon Scott
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One of the reasons I love my job and show up most days, is because of the interesting people I meet.

Ever now and again, one really reaches out and touches your heart and gives you something beyond the general patronage of my tour. Which I’m always honored by. After all, they could spend their money LOTS of places, but are spending it with you on that day.

One of the bigger story presentations I do in Bonaventure is at the songwriter/singer (poet in his world), Johnny Mercer’s grave for all of the reasons he deserves as such an accomplished artistic and business spirit. Cole Porter once said, “Johnny Mercer is beyond category.” He wrote over 1500 songs, won 4 Oscars with 19 nominations and founded the biggest record company in the world, Capitol Records.
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I grew up with my mother always having a piano & organ in the living room and teaching music in our house. I learned to play to some degree even though it never took really, but other than singing out of The Elvis 101 Songbook, my brother and I sang occasionally out of the Johnny Mercer books too. And nothing improves the mood for me than putting on some Johnny Mercer. Living in Savannah of course gives it something “extra”, and it reminds me of a simpler human feeling of living. The world is always chaos but its good to escape for awhile and feel more lovely about it inside of such songs.

Through the years, I’ve had people who worked with Johnny Mercer at Capitol who have taken my tour and not too many months back, had a woman on the tour that had a memory of him on Regency Street in London around 1970 or so (he died 1976). She was all of 21 and was in a sandwich shop near her home and while in the busy place she heard more than one person chattering “Thank you Mr. Mercer” and “You’re welcome Mr. Mercer.” She looked over and saw him eating and naturally, being a fan of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” she went up to him and said, “Excuse me Mr. Mercer, I just wanted to say I’m such a big fan.” He looked up from his sandwich and with a big smile, piped, “So am I!” Classic Johnny. Always “On.” The tour had a good laugh over that and how interesting to have met him, had such a moment, and then finding yourself at a person’s grave so many years later to share such a story? It left me envious quite honestly. I’ve met my share of Savannah characters but the closest I will ever get is next to his grave. I did meet his wife, Ginger, an amazing woman before she died in 1994 but that’s another story for another time.

Elizabeth “Ginger” Meltzer as Broadway Show Girl & Later As V.P. Founder of Capitol Records and yes, Mrs. Mercer!

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So couple of weeks ago, on one of those Savannah days in November where — well you can’t believe its so perfectly warm and sunny in November — I had a pitch perfect combination of the weather, a group of tourists and some level of good feeling that seemed too good to be true but so wonderful when you know its there and you ride the wave of it all. Attending that day was an older couple and the wife, Terry, had a khaki satchel over her shoulder which at first glance sort of fit their “safari” look as a couple. I paid it no real mind but it would have such special relevance after awhile..
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So about 90 minutes in to what at times is a 3 hour story extravaganza, we arrived to the Johnny Mercer family plot on the Johnny Mercer Aisle and I did the big story show at this plot per usual. There’s truly something very spiritual about this plot too. It has this gorgeous live oak and its branches seem like a parasol spreading out protecting the family plot, giving it shade but just enough sun too. And I’ll share with you one of the mysteries of Bonaventure here. The cemetery has 27 miles of azaleas that bloom in March and April. The azaleas around this one patch of cemetery blooms all year long. Rarely do I see them without flowers, even in colder months. I can’t figure it out but I don’t try to either. To me the explanation is in the Mercer plot itself and all of the love and legacy that lives here and that so many people come here adoringly and as they stand there together, pour over their minds remembering all of the life moments they shared around Mercer’s music. Humans feel free to open all of their heart’s chambers there. Their minds too. That’s what fertilizes those flowers. I’m sure of it.

As I went on to tell my version of Johnny’s tale, it was then this lovely couple revealed their true purpose. They announced that they’d brought something to give to me personally. At first I was kind of speechless because I’m so “giving” in my story mode, that I’m not used to having someone present me with gifts in the middle of it! Hah! I kind of felt like someone was talking to me in a dream and that’s the best way I can explain it. Which yes, this is symptomatic of being both in the storytelling zone and the Bonaventure one at the same time.

So once I sort of shifted mental gears, the woman, Terry, started again and said, “Well, when we heard that you were so into Johnny Mercer, we knew we had to bring you these things for your collection.” While the tour looked on also surprised and intrigued, they pulled from their bag a collection of photographs and papers and Terry went onto explain the following living memory of Johnny Mercer and in a very distinct, elegant, Scottish accent I might add.

“When I was a younger woman, in my teens, I lived in Edinburgh and my mother worked at a very grand hotel there where lots of famous people stayed so I was used to my mother (Molly), telling me about seeing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and lots of different celebrities in movies and music. I’d gone into the lobby one day and was waiting for my mother to take a break and suddenly I hear a man say, “Hey there Molly,” and I turned to see this short man walking through the lobby and really he was nothing to look at, but my mother replied, “Hello Mr. Mercer,” and they began talking to each other. It was then I realized it was Johnny Mercer. My mother knew that I was fan and when she took a moment to introduce me, and I expressed myself as much, he was legitimately surprised that someone so young knew who he was and took great interest in this fact. He told me he was in Europe to record an album with Bobby Darin and that when he finished it he would send me an autographed copy. He took all of my information and to my great surprise he sent my mother and I an autographed photograph(See Images) and then later some correspondence from his hotel in Paris, a couple of letters from California, a Christmas card, and of course, an autographed copy of the album, “Two of A Kind” with Bobby Darin.”
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As Terry handed me all of this, I wanted more than anything to sit down with her and just talk but knowing I had a tour to finish, I was very fumbly and felt that having to just move along was somehow an insult to this lovely gesture so did all that I could to show my appreciation as we continued to walk onto the the last few grave sites of the day. Sometimes you just feel so blessed by the actions of others that you kind of want to cry with happiness and this for me was one of those times. I’m not sure if it will make sense to others, but it was like two angels had given me such treasures and then just walked back into the clouds. I wanted more time with them for such thoughtfulness.

Which is the thing. Even now as I’ve been typing this and scanning the images I’ve come to realize that I’m holding these very personal items 2nd hand. 3 hands ago? They were in his. Its 3 degrees of separation in my world. Johnny Mercer took the hotel’s stationery in Paris, probably smoking and a drink nearby, inserted into the typewriter and typed it up reflecting on the meeting with the young girl who was the woman on my tour. And yes, as you’ll read, flirting openly with them both. Perhaps he was just being “Johnny,” but maybe as he typed, it wasn’t a far cry from the feeling of a piano and as he thought himself the poet first, songman after, such letters may have seen more close to the heart of himself and his craft. Perhaps he whistled while he did and maybe flashes of song lyrics came to his lips, words for a future song. Who knows, maybe he even thought, “that’s witty” and jotted a note to the side. Surely there was music playing nearby? Yes, its fun to romance such things. And as I said earlier. I can’t bring him back to life. I’ll never get to really meet him. I can just be inspired in my stories by his spirit and conjure him up for audiences graveside. No, he doesn’t need me to do this but I love doing it. Johnny was known to be very personal with his fans. We’re a lot a like that way too. Mike Douglas once reflected to Tom Waits that he was the most personal, down to earth guy you could ever hope to run into in Hollywood. I don’t doubt it. He was from Savannah after all. He was everyone’s huckleberry friend.

Even now, Johnny Mercer is making magic happen through moments like this in Bonaventure…

LEARN MORE

http://www.johnnymercerfoundation.org/