It is now time to update the About the Author info on my website. And I have decided to speak frankly about my past. Why?
The other day I did an interview for a literary podcast called the Inside Flap. Two things came up that caused me to take a serious look back on my life and consider being more open about some of the things I went through.
The first thing was the fact that I’m a former high school dropout. Before the interview, the hosts had done their homework and knew a little about my history. I expected this subject to come up and was prepared to defend myself by pointing out that I did go back to school and did earn some college degrees, so it’s not like I’m a complete bumkin. I had planned to talk about winning a competitive internship with Morgan Stanley while studying finance, bla bla bla.
But when they brought up the subject, it was not in a negative light. In fact, they seemed impressed. They said they thought it was “inspiring” that a high school dropout could go back and finish his education, even go on to write books.
It occurred to me later that maybe sharing my story could end up inspiring some kid going through tough times today?
The other thing that came up was the possibility that I might have engaged in some criminal activities as a kid. I joked around about this, did a bit of hinting, but never really said much. After, I wondered why I didn’t just come right out about it.
In the middle of this portion of the discussion, there was one question that later caused me to lose a bit of sleep:
“Where are the bodies?”
This was said in jest, of course, but was repeated several times. That got me to thinking back on some of the violence I was around as a kid. And one event in particular: A murder.
A murder I witnessed. A murder that is, to my knowledge, still on the books in Atlanta as an unsolved homicide.
I knew the kid who was murdered. And I knew the kid who did it.
So, in a manner of speaking, I do know where the bodies are. And maybe it’s time to dig them up?
About My Past: The Bad Stuff
Yes, I am a former high school dropout.
I grew up in Doraville Georgia on the north side of Atlanta. The neighborhood was lower-middle class, overgrown yards, cars on blocks, etc. Though it wasn’t as rough as I described in Breaking Gravity, it wasn’t exactly paradise either. One summer there was both a shooting and a stabbing within a block of my home.
I don’t remember how old I was that summer (maybe ten?), but, the morning after the shooting, I remember following the blood trail. It happened in front of a house two doors down and there was a fairly big pool of blood on the street where it happened. The kid who got shot must have sat on the curb for a few minutes before walking up the street to his home. We followed the blood spurts up the hill to the curb in front of his house, where there was yet another big puddle where he waited for the ambulance.
Anyway, something I hated at the time but now thank my lucky stars for is that we did not have a TV for most of my formative years. For that reason, I became an avid reader. From around the age of nine or ten and on up, I burned through two or three novels a week.
My home life wasn’t particularly rough. My pops knocked me around a bit and my parents argued constantly, but I had it better than a lot of my friends. I guess something was amiss though because I began acting out in school. The first time I got suspended was in the fifth grade at Henderson Mill Elementary, and I managed to get expelled in the seventh grade at Hightower Elementary.
Wait, let me back up. Hightower was in Doraville, Henderson Mill was in North Lake—a much better area of Atlanta. I transferred there in the fifth grade when my folks rented a house in the district.
During my first week at Henderson Mill, one of the teachers noticed a book I was reading. I can’t remember what it was, but I do remember her saying it was a book she had studied in college. She asked me a few questions about the book, trying to figure out if I understood the material. Whatever I said must have been right, because the next thing you know I was taking tests. By the end of the week, they bumped me up to the highest fifth grade levels for reading and math.
That was all fine and dandy, until we moved back to Doraville near the end of sixth grade. Unfortunately, Hightower did not teach to the reading and math levels I was in. So they just sat me at the back of the class, gave me a workbook, and said: “Good luck, kid.”
Long story short, of course I was going to get in trouble. Looking back now, I’m impressed I lasted as long as I did before getting expelled. Though I didn’t get to “walk” with my seventh-grade class, they did promote me to high school (there was no middle school for the area at the time).
And that’s where the trouble begins.
I spent eighth grade, and part of ninth, at Peachtree High. Peachtree, at the time, was pretty rough. Lots of fighting. Enough that it was commonplace, just an annoyance. At two of the schools I would later attend, fighting was a big deal. Huge, even. One guy shoves another, somebody yells “FIGHT!” and the whole school stands around gawking. But at Peachtree, if four or five kids were swinging on each other, you’d just keep your head down, push your way through the brawl, and get your ass to class. Otherwise you’d wind up with detention for being late.
Anyway, at Peachtree I started running with some rough kids. Didn’t take long to rack up a few suspensions and a ton of in-house suspensions—mainly just getting caught playing hooky, smoking in the boys room, etc. Early experimenting with drugs (just herb at the time) began to escalate, often getting high with buddies at the bus stop before school.
And then we moved to Tucker.
For a while, life got good for me. Really good. The area was great, the school quite tame (comparatively). I already had some buds over there, and they were well liked which helped smooth the social part of the transition. I got caught smoking a few times, but I don’t remember getting in much trouble there. I even earned some decent grades.
Until things started to fall apart at home, anyhow. My parents were arguing more than ever. The quarreling hit a crescendo, and then stopped altogether. Next thing you know, they split up.
At first I lived with my mother. I won’t go into details about the incident that caused me to leave, but suffice it to say the divorce hit my mom hard and she struggled with reality for a while. So I moved in with my dad. But he was done with us, the whole family—not just my mom. It didn’t take him long to find an excuse to kick me out.
So then I was homeless.
That sounds a little more dramatic than it really was. I slept in a car a few times, but it’s not like I was living in a cardboard box at sixteen. Mainly I just bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house. A few nights here, a few nights there. Once I figured out girls, I ended up with a lot more roofs I could count on, places to wash my clothes, take a shower.
One thing I struggled with, though, was money. People were feeding me, but often times I’d have to wait until late at night when somebody was sneaking me in. And transportation was an issue, too. Tough to get to school in the morning when you wake up on the other side of town.
So then I became a bit of a criminal.
At first I was just selling weed. But that was a struggle, moving a dime bag here and there, smoking up most of my profits. Then I dabbled in petty crime, mainly breaking into parked cars. If you’ve read Breaking Gravity, that’s where I got some of the details used in Chapter 13. Though profitable, that was far too high risk for me so I went back to selling drugs. I found a good connection for buying LSD in quantity and *presto* my money problems were solved.
At some point, I ended up at Open Campus Dekalb. It was a high school for bad kids, more or less. Bad kids from all over the city. Which kicked my social life into high gear. Drug dealers are the one person everybody wants to see at a party. And since students at Open Campus came from all over, I was hooked up. On top of all the house parties, there was the warehouse scene. And this was right when Raves were first hitting the east coast.
Anyway, I was making some money. I managed to buy a motorcycle and save up enough to rent an apartment. The problem was that I was too young to legally sign a lease.
Over the summer before my senior year, something happened that made me worry about my future. I took a legit job and tried to go straight. The job was door-to-door sales, selling subscriptions for the local paper (the AJC). It was mainly commission based, but I was pretty good at selling and was able to make about $20 to $30 an hour, when the minimum wage was like $4.25/hr.
That’s how I got my first apartment. Duplex, rather. One of the guys on my sales crew was older (maybe 22?) and looking for a roommate. But that was short-lived.
On the Friday after I moved in, we threw a house warming. I don’t remember why, but I ended up leaving around ten. When I left, there were like fifty or sixty people there. When I came back around one, pretty much everybody was gone. Some girl was passed out in my bed, some dude was on the couch, and my roomy wasn’t answering when I banged on his door. So I ended up sleeping on the floor in the living room.
I woke up the next morning to two plainclothes cops kicking me. One of them took my roommate outside for a while, and the other asked me a bunch of questions about the roommate and some girl that had been there the night before. Then they left.
There was a cruiser sitting outside when my roommate and I went to breakfast. It followed us to the Waffle House, sat outside while we ate, then followed when we left. As we pulled in the driveway, three more cruisers came roaring up, everybody jumped out, started yelling and pointing guns at us.
That was that for the duplex, not to mention my roommate. And my $600 deposit.
Anyway, I did manage to stay in school until my senior year. I didn’t exactly dropout, though. Rather, I was told to leave.
I had transferred from Open Campus to Dunwoody High School. On my very first day at Dunwoody, the discipline administrator pulled me out of class for a face-to-face—one of those “I know your type” kind of deals. To be fair, I probably brought that on myself. Dunwoody was a nice school in a very affluent area. And here I was riding a motorcycle to school, wearing a Bad Brains t-shirt and rolled up jeans over Doc Martin boots.
I don’t blame the guy. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
Anyway, around the middle of my first semester, I went to the front office to check myself out. I had to go downtown to replace a door-to-door sales badge that I had lost. The place I needed to go was only open on weekdays, closed at 2pm. They wouldn’t let me check myself out, needed a parent to sign for me. I was trying to explain that I didn’t live with my parents when the discipline admin came out and took me to his office.
When I went to explain where I needed to go, he just changed the subject and started talking about all my absences and tardies. I said yeah but look at my grades. I was in all advanced / AP classes and passing everything. But he didn’t care, basically gave me a choice: Leave or I will take you before the Student Evidentiary Hearing Committee and have you expelled.
That was it for me, man. I’d had enough. What was the point in trying to keep my shit together? Keep myself in school like all the other normal kids?
So I dumped school, dumped the stupid job, and went back to partying and selling drugs.
Though I’ve been dwelling on a lot of negative things so far, it really wasn’t all that bad. Despite being homeless at a young age, I never went hungry and I always had somewhere to go. I kept up with hygiene, usually could find something clean to wear. Socially, I was a chameleon. Hung out with punks and skaters, partied with jocks and preps, got high with the hippies.
I have no regrets. The circumstances of my youth were unfortunate, but many have had it far worse. And, eventually, I was able to go back and finish my education. In my early twenties I met the most beautiful woman in the world and married her. Now we have three crazy-smart little boys, the oldest of which is in ninth grade.
All is well that ends well. Right?
About My Past: The Good Stuff
Ok so right after they kicked me out, I went and took the GED. I had taken the SAT in the ninth grade and scored high enough to get into any public university in Georgia. But since all I had was a GED, I ended up at Dekalb Community College. But I was still partying hard and school didn’t last.
Around twenty, I decided I’d had enough of that life and it was time to move on. So I took a legit job doing graphics for a phone company. This was right when graphic production was moving out of darkrooms and going digital. The phone company had purchased a slick new Macintosh and all the expensive software necessary, but couldn’t find anybody who knew how to use it.
I didn’t know how to use it, either. But I knew computers and was able to bluff my way in. Once in, I learned on the fly and was able to make their brochures, catalogs, etc. I enjoyed the job, but it was only a part-time gig. So a few months later, I struck out on my own and opened my first legit business, Prepress Xpress Inc.
That did not go well. I had placed an ad in the AJC, but very little came of it. Most of the work that came my way was mom-n-pop stuff, like flyers for lawn mowing services. I was renting the house in Doraville that I’d grown up in and I had roommates, but I was still struggling to pay the rent. If I missed rent, my mom missed the mortgage because she was even more broke than I was. After struggling for about three months, I was seriously considering going back to the only other way I knew to make a living.
Then one afternoon, a buddy of mine shows up. Three days before he had ripped off some dealer in Daytona. In the trunk of his car, five pounds of weed. He was headed out to California on Saturday, wanted me to drop everything and go with him. Later that same day—no kidding, same day!—I get a call from some lady who found me in the AJC and was looking to outsource the production of magazines.
After that, Prepress Xpress took off. It became a high-end, high-volume production studio, producing more than thirty magazines and a half dozen hardcover books per year. My work ended up in stores in more than eighteen countries. My name, or my company name, can still be found on the credit pages of books and magazines still being sold at Michael’s Craft Stores, Walmart, Target, etc.
That business thrived for six or seven years. I was no longer a criminal, but I was still hitting the clubs and partying like a wild man.
Eventually, I tired of it. I was twenty-two when I swore off the life, swore off single-serving relationships. And, once again, Lady Luck smiled upon me with timing. Within a month I was dating my soon-to-be wife.
Shortly after I proposed, I started thinking about the future, started worrying about stability. My highest level of education was a GED, and that wasn’t much of a fallback. What if we had children?
So I let most of my clients go and went back to school, full-time. To cover my overhead, I bought an apartment building in Lilburn. We lived in one unit, rented out the other three. The rental income was enough to cover the mortgage and utilities, and I was able to pick up small projects here and there.
I finished my associates of Business Admin at Dekalb College (now Georgia Perimeter College) and transferred to Georgia State University where I earned bachelors in Business Management and Corporate Finance. During my senior year, I won an internship with Morgan Stanley. And I also supplemented my income as a financial consultant with a medical company. I mention that because it led to what I ended up doing after graduation.
The medical company was run by my buddy Sam, a guy I grew up with. At the time, Sam was one of the largest used medical equipment dealers in the country. He had a twenty thousand square foot warehouse in downtown Atlanta, near the stadium. The warehouse was filled with surgery tables, anesthesia machines, stretchers, heart-lung machines, you name it.
Sam’s focus was primarily dealer-to-dealer sales. And he was making disgusting money.
But he had a problem. He could clear $80k in a month, but the power would be off at the warehouse because he forgot to pay the bill. He was incorporated, but was taking checks written to his name. His business and personal finances were all tied up together. And he was in trouble with the IRS.
So I came in to help him straighten out the money. On my first day going through his invoices, I remember being impressed that he was collecting sales tax on the few occasions he sold direct. But I couldn’t find a running total on the sales taxes, nor could I find any state account where he was paying the taxes he collected.
When I asked him about it, Sam said: “Sales taxes? Oh, yeah. Man, that’s just gravy!”
I can laugh about that now, but it freaked me out at the time.
I stuck with it anyhow, trying to help him sort through it all. And that opened my eyes to the kind of money that could be made in the medical industry. To give you an example, shortly after I started, Sam got a call from a hospital in DC. They had just bought new beds, were looking to get rid of the old. Sam offered $50 a bed and sent three guys to DC to load two hundred beds onto two tractor trailers.
On the same day the warehouse guys left for DC, Sam found a dealer in North Carolina who offered $250 per bed, plus shipping. Sam’s guys spent three days in DC, but he ended up walking away with close to $40k.
Believe it or not though, Sam was not the real winner of that deal. The other dealer brought those beds back to his warehouse, put another $150 (on average) into the beds—repairing, painting, replacing casters—and then sold them for $2000 each. That guy cleared at least $100k, probably closer to $150k.
So that’s what I decided to do when I graduated:
Buy used equipment, fix it up, and resell it to end users (hospitals, surgery centers, etc).
Upon graduation, my wife and I moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I turned down an offer from a brokerage and opened a new business, MedHarvest Inc.
MedHarvest did well, lasted about eight years. During it’s height, I had two small warehouses and a few employees. I started out mainly buying from Sam, then other dealers. Once I had my legs, I was able to go into hospitals and surgery centers and buy equipment directly. One of my employees was very good with hydraulics and electronics, which allowed equipment sold by MedHarvest to earn a solid reputation.
One of the highlights is that a publicly traded company flew its COO to Jacksonville to meet with me. They were the exclusive North American distributors of x-ray systems built by one of the largest imaging manufacturers in the world. They came down, scoped me out, then invited me to Atlanta to help them develop a trade-in program for their imaging systems. I became one of only two authorized dealers for used Kodak Panoramic x-ray systems.
Anyway, money was pretty good for a while. When our first boy came along, my wife—who was a kindergarten teacher at the time—was able to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mommy, which is what she always wanted.
But then came the big economic downturn. Companies that were too big to fail got bailed out. To show their gratitude, the banks then turned around and screwed the little guys. Even though I had perfect credit and had never missed even a single payment, one day I came in to discover that all of my credit lines had been frozen.
At the time, my monthly nut was close to $20k. That was the amount I had to clear before I earned a penny.
At first I was just annoyed about the credit crunch. I didn’t take it personally, I knew a ton of other guys this had happened to. And sales were still strong, so it didn’t matter. But the economy continued to tank, and, about six months later, sales began to slow. And slow. And slow.
I didn’t want to lay anybody off, but I didn’t have any work for my guys. So I had them do work on my truck, my mom’s car; hang gutters on my house; anything I could think of to keep from having to fire anybody.
Hindsight being what it was, I should not have done that. I should have let everybody go, consolidated into a single warehouse, and just held my breath until the recession was over.
But I didn’t. I held on way too long. By the time I realized I was going under, I had burned through everything MedHarvest had. When I got out, it was too late. I ended up losing everything, my personal savings, even the 529 college savings account I had set up for my boys. I very nearly lost our home.
Losing MedHarvest was tough, but that’s what led me to start writing. I tried to find work, but that was when EVERYBODY was looking for work. Hundreds of thousands of people had just been downsized. I was sending my resume out, day-after-day… just like everybody else.
So I had a lot of time on my hands. I built a crazy-big treehouse in the backyard for the boys. I did every household project that needed doing. And I still had time to kill.
That’s when I decided it was time to check “Write a Novel” off of my Bucket List. Hence, the origin of Breaking Gravity.
Digging Up the Bodies
Now that we’re up to date, it’s time to do a little unloading.
In Breaking Gravity, the main characters—Dale and Jessica—end up hiding out in an underground club (CHAPTER 10 – Bus Stop). That club is based loosely on a real place, a warehouse that really was located on Sampson Street in Atlanta.
During the late 80s, early 90s, there was a group of kids who used to throw huge parties there. They called themselves (or called the club/parties) the Bus Stop (hence the name of the chapter). Over time, the events became more and more organized and they ended up throwing some of the earliest, biggest Raves in Atlanta.
One night a buddy and I went there for a Rave. It was late, probably well after midnight. There was a big line of people waiting to get in. My friend and I were going around the line to get in when a fight burst out through the doors.
It was a brawl, really. Maybe six or eight dudes. On one side were the guys throwing the party and on the other was a group of Gwinnett wanna-be gang-bangers. I remember being surprised to see the bangers because Sampson St was not a hip-hop scene.
Anyway, the brawl scattered apart in the gravel parking lot with a cluster of fighters here, another there… but not one big clump. And then baseball bats and other weapons appeared. People were shouting, girls screaming.
I was watching two guys I recognized go at it. I didn’t know either of them super well, can’t remember their names. One was one of the Bus Stop dudes, who I knew well enough to share a beer with. The other was an Asian kid I’d done some business with before.
I never saw the knife. They were just going at it. And then the Asian kid gave three or four quick punches to the chest. They didn’t look like hard punches, but the Bus Stop kid dropped to his knees.
And then chaos. Things became a bit of a blur, but I remember the Asian kid pushing by me as he and his homies were leaving. And I remember a car trying to get through the crowd, some girl screaming for people to get out of the way.
I leaned in the car to say something to the Bus Stop kid, and that’s when I realized he’d been stabbed. He was in the backseat, T-shirt soaked in blood, head back, eyes rolled.
Yes, the kid had been stabbed. And it was clearly pretty serious. But I thought he was alive, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. I had no idea that he died, not until years later.
Not knowing that the kid died almost got me killed a week later.
Let me back up a little. The Asian kid and I had a history, we had done business together. The last time we did business, he was slow to pay up. I ended up going over to his house to collect. When he wouldn’t come to the door, I went in through his bedroom window and found him passed out on a couch. When he didn’t have enough cash to cover the debt, he ended up giving me some other stuff, including an ornate wooden pool stick (which I still have).
So a week after the stabbing, I took my sister, one of her girlfriends, and my buddy GB to a pool hall called Spare Change (off Jimmy Carter Blvd). And that Asian kid was there, it was his hangout.
Right away he was giving me the hairy eyeball. I didn’t feel like leaving, so I decided to go smooth shit over with him.
Again, I had no idea that that kid had died. The Asian kid had seen me there (he looked me right in the eye as he was leaving), maybe he knew I was friends with the dudes he was fighting. So I went over and said what’s up, saw you guys throwing down, what started all that?
Basically, I was just letting him know I was cool about it. I wasn’t there to start any shit.
He acted like he had no idea what I was talking about, told me to fuck off.
By the time I got back to our table, there was a quiet commotion going on. Asian dude’s buddies were up to something. GB was in the bathroom, but I told my sister she needed to leave, leave now. Soon as GB came back, he and I left, too.
There were three dudes just outside the door. They were like holdup, let’s talk. I’m like hell no. One of the dudes went inside as we headed to the car. As we were pulling out, about a dozen dudes came piling out of Spare Change.
Again I misread the situation. We’d had bad blood before, maybe he had just decided to take advantage of the fact that I was on his turf? Or maybe he knew I was friends with the Bus Stop kids, and he was still pissed at those dudes and was going to take it out on me?
So I didn’t think much of it. Not until many, many years later. After I had moved to Florida.
On a MedHarvest business trip to Atlanta, I ended up at a bar in Tucker called Flanigans. I got to talking with some guy, discovered we had a lot of friends in common.
Turns out this dude was one of the Bus Stop kids. At some point I mentioned that the last time I was there, I saw some kid get stabbed.
He’s like, “Yeah, that was my brother. He died before they got to the hospital.”
So now what?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m hoping somebody will run with this, dig up the facts and give them to authorities, bring closure in the form of justice?
In case somebody wants to do some digging, here are some facts (to the best of my recollection). The stabbing occurred in a gravel lot on Sampson Street in Atlanta, near Inman Park. That area has been gentrified over the years, warehouses bulldozed to make room for luxury apartments, etc.
I just used Google Street View to try to find an address, but I didn’t recognize much. I think the actual warehouse is now gone. Here is a street view of the area, within a block or two: http://bit.ly/SampsonSt
The stabbing occurred in 1992 (plus or minus a year). At the time, the area was extremely rough so there were likely other murders on Sampson St. But this murder would stand out because the victim was a young white kid from suburbia.
Anyway, I guess that’s it.
I hope that my being so candid has not ruined anybody’s opinion of me. I’m not proud of having engaged in nefarious activities during a misspent youth. The only thing I will say in my defense is that that life ended for me more than twenty years ago, and I have lived on the straight and narrow ever since.
As Paul Harvey would say: “And now you know the rest of the story.”