Southern Privies

Gene’s closet-drinker  theory made perfect sense to me. This was the history of a domestic drama that you could hold in your hand. “This whole thing is really about people, isn’t it ?” I asked. “Yeah, it sure is,” Gene nodded. “From the people who let you dig, to the people you dig with, to the people who walk up wondering what we’re doing, to the people whose past you’re uncovering.”

Suddenly, he looked uncomfortable, and looked around before wincing and saying “I’ve got to talk to you and Mark.” The way the Big Boy’s divided the bottles at the end of a dig was to draw for the lowest number. Even if you were the one in the hole when it was found, it might not necessarily be yours. It was the only way to be fair about it. What Gene told Mark and myself was that we wouldn’t be included in any of the draws. In other words, they thought their club was already big enough. It hurt Mark’s feelings more than it did mine, he worked with some of these guys in the insulation trade. I put on my best face, thanked them for the good times, and for everything they had taught me. John felt bad , so, he treated us to burgers and onion rings at the Crystal Beer Parlor. We talked of forming our own club. “Have you seen the guy they get to go around and ask folks if they can dig ? He looks like Jethro Tull ! ( I didn’t bother telling him he meant Ian Anderson ) . He has had way more doors slammed in his face, than not. Thing is, it doesn’t bother him at all. He just keeps smiling, even if they open the door to cuss him out. He says, ‘You never know when they might change their minds .'”

So, we struck out own our own. We enlisted the help of a couple of younger men, Larry and Bill. Larry worked as a plumber’s helper, and Bill in construction, and both were quite familiar with shovels. Almost immediately, Bill nabbed us a lot to dig. It was four blocks off the river, on East Broad Street, right across from Fellwood Homes, a rather notorious housing project. “Get there early, and leave early,” was John’s advice. We were pretty excited, and showed up at seven a.m., rested, and ready, none of us hungover, which was an amazing thing. John and Mark stuck probes in the ground, finding a privy right away. It took a long time just to get to the brick structure. We began finding the usual Lea & Perrins, some medicine bottles (but, nothing cool like Dr. Ward’s Venereal Cure or tincture of cocaine ), a handful of marbles (those crazy kids!) ,and a broken inkwell. Around midday we were approached by two men. One was shirtless and shoeless, wearing frayed jeans held up with a rope, and carrying a paper sack. He smelled like fortified wine gone rancid, and an undeterminable pork product, badly corrupted. The other guy was better dressed, but, hung in the background.

“Anybody wanna buy any dog leashes ?” the shirtless man asked. He had a sack full of dog leashes, none of them new, and no two the same. It was as though he had looted a collection of dog leashes. We, politely, declined. He walked over, and stooped over our hole, hands on his knees. “Wha’chall doin’, diggin for gold ?” Bill smirked and said, “We dropped a quarter. We’re trying to find our quarter,” while I silently entreated him to be nice. The man stared for a moment longer, and with no warning, pitched over face first into the mound of soft spoil. His nose and lips were twisted to one side, blowing little tufts of dirt. We motioned for his dealer / handler to come get him. He helped the man to his feet, brushing the dirt off his face. “Just restin’…you gennelmens take care !” They shambled off down the street with their oddball merchandise. We resumed digging, finding a doll head so hideous as to have done Chucky proud. The only thing of note we found was an aqua Henry Kuck, in the clean out. It revived our spirits like nothing else could’ve.

As the sun began sinking low, the human activity across the street began picking up. People sat on stoops, or prowled the sidewalks. The little concession on the corner that sold cigarettes, singly, and ice by the baggie, began doing more business. A young lady in pink gym shorts and a white tank top danced down the sidewalk to her own rhythm. She alternated struts and strides. A predatory-looking guy leaning against an oak tree watched her as she passed. She stopped and did that butt jiggle thing where each cheek moved separately, seemingly, of their own volition. Predatory dude was on her like a cat, jerking her pants and panties to her knees, before fleeing. Any normal person would’ve jerked them back up, even if modesty is the only contrived virtue. Not her, she took off after him, her curses indecipherable screeches, bending to snatch up a brickbat that she employed as a missile. It missed him and struck a parked car. The car’s owner stormed off a stoop, and a serious shouting match ensued. “Time to fill that hole, boys!” John exclaimed with more than a hint of urgency in his voice. We fell to it with a purpose. “What’ll we call ourselves?” Larry asked. Of course, I’d been thinking about that. “What about A&E Bottlediggers ? It could stand for anything and everything, or, assholes and elbows.” They laughed, but, we remained unnamed.

We were back at it on the same lot early the next morning. We sank a new hole, but, nothing looked promising. A truck slowed at the curb, and stopped. It was Gene, and another Big Boy, on their way to a dig, somewhere. They smiled, seemingly proud that we were doing our own thing. However, they weren’t impressed with where we were concentrating our efforts. “Y’all ought to be digging on that right-of-way,” Gene said, pointing at a narrow strip between the sidewalk and street. We didn’t think it likely. By all rights, no part of a privy should be there. Gene stuck a probe in the ground and said ,” I’m hitting bottles not two feet down!” We dug down twenty inches and found three black glass wine bottles. Though we didn’t have permission, we dug up that whole right-of-way, and the only other bottle we found was a Boone’s Farm, circa 1974. Later that afternoon, the shirtless man was back, this time alone, and carrying a cardboard box. “Anybody wanna buy any hammers?” A peek in the box revealed hammers, none of them new, all sizes. We explained that we were shovel kind of guys. Larry gave the guy two dollars ” just for totin’ those hammers around.”

There would be other digs. The one behind B&B Paint Supply on Martin Luther King Blvd. really tested our be nice resolution. The place was ground zero for aggressive drug sales and prostitution. No, we didn’t want any weed, no matter how “killuh” it was, no we didn’t want any crack, and, no, we didn’t want a date. I smiled so much my face hurt. The bottles all seemed to be on the I-16 right-of-way, somewhere we couldn’t, legally, dig. Larry, Bill, and, to a lesser degree, Mark, wanted to come back under the cover of darkness and dig that right-of-way. John and I disagreed, vehemently. Youthful and bullheaded they argued. Finally we just told them, “Don’t call us to bail you out!” Prudently, they stayed their asses home.

I wrangled the York Street dig from a lawyer for whom I had agreed to be a witness to an accident site. It was a shingle tab-covered parking lot, the dirt impacted like asphalt. We couldn’t find a privy on the whole lot. In a place where a privy shouldn’t have been, the probe struck something solid  seventeen inches down. It turned out to be an old eight inch water main installed in the 1880’s. Beside the pipe, laid end-to-end, were seven green glass John Ryan ginger ale bottles, embossed Augusta, Geo. Five of the seven were broken due to the weight of the vehicles over the years. We smiled like we had all indulged in something killuh. We didn’t know it but that would be our last dig.

A year later Bill was killed while pushing his motorcycle down the Islands Expressway, out of gas, late at night. The guy, whom John and I knew, just didn’t see him. His wake was the first I had ever attended. It was ribald, rowdy, and irreverent, just like Bill would’ve loved. I far preferred it to sitting in a strange house, trying to eat somebody’s ham and lima casserole, making nice talk with people I didn’t know, nor, would I ever see again. We joked that Bill, at that very moment, was lying his way into Heaven. I thought that aqua Henry Kuck should be placed in his casket. Mark reasoned that Bill wouldn’t want something put back in the ground that it took so much trouble to dig out. The less sentimental side of me knew he was right.

Larry wandered out to New Orleans, survived Katrina, and, eventually came back to Georgia. John and Mark, and the Big Boys all retired from bottle-digging. Now they peruse yard sales, and flea markets, to find bottles, borne from others’ sweat equity, hook, or crook. It’s a much younger man’s game, all that digging, and chance-taking. What doesn’t go away is that desire to find that buried treasure. In doing research for this article I found that in 1867 John Ryan bottles were produced right here in Atlanta. Being that there weren’t many produced, they should be worth some substantial change. All you need is a mid-19th century privy, permission to dig, a strong back, heart and hope. To put it indelicately, there may be a fortune where turds used to flourish.

Brickbats and Beer Cans, Part 1




Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver is a writer living, and, working in Atlanta Ga. He believes your country is to die for, food is to eat. He treads the earth, in chrome tennis shoes, fervently searching for transcendent banana pudding. The skin on top is optional.