Photo by Casey Gomez

Two measly naked hot dogs lay in front of me, accompanied by grease-drenched french fries and a solitary, sweating red paper cup. 

Across the cheap grey table sits my boyfriend, happily digging into an overpriced low-grade burger. 

It is 8 p.m. Wednesday. I am at the Varsity. 

My boyfriend dragged me here after he saw an ad for the Varsity in an issue of the Technique from the 1950s. I’m not really sure why I let him do that.

“Excuse me. Are y’all college students?”

A voice breaks the silence.

“Are y’all college students?”

A short woman, clad in Varsity red and armed with a broom, stands at the edge of our table, expectantly waiting for a response. We reply with a bemused yes.

“I just want to tell y’all how to be safe out there. I came up with this mix to use instead of pepper spray – jalapeno sauce, honey and pepper flakes. It burns like hell and doesn’t come out of their eyes. Just whenever someone tries something, just go ‘spssst’ and they’ll be rolling on the ground in pain,” she says, stuttering through her two missing front teeth. 

We thank her for the advice. 

She departs. 

Two more bites into our food and we hear, “I just want all y’all to be safe. Don’t understand why people go after college kids when you out there trying to get an education.” 

As college students, we both selfishly agree with her statement. She leaves again, only to return later. 

She continues this dance of silent sweeping and avid talking for the next hour.

“I live down the street. It’s tough there. People don’t have running water or food in their homes. We just can’t afford it. I make less than $500 a week. All that goes towards putting a roof over my babies’ heads. We can’t go anywhere better because we have no money. Sometimes, we don’t have enough to eat everyday. I learned to live off a slice of bread for three days.”

Quiet sweeping.

“We need clothes. I know a girl down the street who’s been wearing the same shirt for 30 days. She stinks! But she doesn’t have anything else to wear. And all that stuff that gets donated never makes it to us. The lady in charge of one of them gives all the best clothes to her kids first.”

Silence.

“We can’t trust the government. They make all these promises to us that they’re going to fix our neighborhoods and then they don’t do anything. If anyone else tries to help, we just scare them off. We are taught to act tough so no one f*cks with us. We don’t know how to ask for help because that’s a sign of weakness. Being weak will get you killed.”

She empties some trays into the trash.

“Some mamas out there get their kids addicted to heroin just so they have someone to sell to. We don’t have good role models out there. Growing up, all they see are drug dealers so they become dealers. Big brothers are out there telling their little brothers, ‘f*ck them b*tches. F*ck them hoes. If she ain’t going to have sex with you, go to her sister.’ No one’s learning respect.”

 “We need role models like you guys. We need respectable kids like you taking our kids out to places like the Varsity or the movies or something.”

We ended up listening to her for over an hour. Never before were we as grounded as we were in that grease-coated booth. 

Sure, Tech is hard but at least we have running water and clean clothes. 

When we finished eating, she insisted that she would take care of our trash. 

In return for her insight into life in Atlanta, I’m sharing her story in hopes that someone turn her suggestions into action.