Tifton Georgia was once in the very heart of Georgia’s farm belt, and parts of it still very much are. Yet I-75 cuts through Tifton like an elevated anaconda, and it strangles the slow-paced life that depends on green things growing. Where the speed of a person was once measured in how long it took to get something done, time is mostly measure in how long it takes to get from one place to another, and no speed is ever fast enough.
This is a new dichotomy. The population of humans passing through Tifton is greater than the population of Tifton itself. Fast food dispensaries line up like lice next to an open wound, and sit- down theme restaurants nestle themselves as near the trough as they can. Motels and Hotels spring up like mushrooms after a Summer rain, and suddenly, at any given time, there are more people spending the night in Tifton than there are actually living there. These temporary citizens will be gone in the morning, after breakfast and coffee, and their replacements are hot on their heels. They come and go, at speeds once unimagined, and the good people of Tift County scarcely know their company exists at all. No handshakes are exchanged, no stories are told, no meals are shared, no one sees the new people or the old people, and all becomes a blur of shiny vehicles. The family headed for Florida sleeps within a mile of the family who has lived here all their lives, and no one knows the kids all have the same names, or they share a love for the same foods.
Maybe it’s a “if you build it” thing. It would seem unlikely there would be such a strong need for such a violently quick, but temporary migration. Like an endless plain of wildebeests the cars and trucks pass day and night, as if some naturally occurring phenomena. Our project is just South of the Interstate, and the sprawl of pop-up motels and propped up fast food chains are creeping into what was once a very rural neighborhood. The truck stop with its acres and acres of parking lot, and its multitude of pumps, and its billion watt lights burn a hole in the night. Target, the slightly less trashy cousin of Mal Wart set up a distribution center nearby. An LP gas farm was built within spitting distance of a trailer park. People once honestly poor now find themselves living in what is becoming an industrial slum.
Under the billboard that’s half a football field wide, and lit with enough electricity to power a dozen homes, is what was once a family’s yard. There are still some old ornamental trees, and there is a small pond, with a dock shipwrecked in the middle. The house is gone; destroyed, moved, burned down or pushed down, and no traces of the people remain. Somewhere here are the graves of pets. Someone buried a loved kitten here, and over there is the final resting place for an old dog. A couple of the old farm buildings remain in the middle of the field near the house, and during what passes as lunch, I go to investigate.
The billboard supplies enough light so I could read a newspaper as I cross the field. I borrowed one of those new small but powerful LED flashlights from a contractor so I can look inside the buildings. The small red-orange signal flare of a cigarette gives me pause. Someone is in one of the buildings. I’m twenty-five feet or so away, and just for an instant I think about turning back. These are humans who have succumbed to the “build it and they will come” meme. They mimic their faster brethren, loping along, hoping for a ride, carrying what they can, or what they have to, in backpacks or shoulder bags. I’ve seen members of this species of human pulling luggage with wheel on the side of the interstate, and I wonder at what point the bearings will break, and a decision on what to carry, or how to carry, will have to be made. Suddenly, I’m consumed with curiosity. I’d like to know what they’re carrying, and why.
There is no way in hell I would ever enter the building. It looks like it might have been a pump house for a well. It’s small, the door is long gone, and there are no windows. I can hear someone scrabbling around, and gather up belongs as I approach. I stop ten feet away from the doorway and call out, “I’m not a cop. Relax.” A man who looks a little older than me steps into the glare of the billboard. “What’cha want?” It occurs to me there might be someone else in there with him, and there might be others in the building fifty feet away. This is stupid, Mike. Bail.
“We’re going to tear down these buildings tomorrow.” I lie, “I want to make sure no one is in them when we do. You can stay the night if you want.”
“Got nowhere else to go, the man tells me, “ain’t et in a week.” Lie for lie.
“I’ll give you some money for some food.” I tell him, “But you have to sell me something.”
The pack back contains mostly junk, and even the pack isn’t worth much. The straps have been knotted together after breaking, there are holes worn in several places, and the whole thing is on the verge of disintegration. The owner of the pack is in worse shape than he first appeared. Under the billboard I realize he might not have eaten in a week. His face is haggard and his breathing isn’t regular. His smoker’s hack is almost constant. This isn’t some romanic vagabond with a sad story of how he wound up on the road. This is a man with true mental illness and he cannot stop talking. I’m careful to keep upwind from him, and not touch the stuff on the ground. He tells me his name is Bill, and Bill owns a cell phone recharger, which he would really like to sell to me, a plastic coffee mug, that is ugly and green, he owns a new CD, still wrapped in plastic, of Latino music, and he wants to sell that too. Bill owns a car battery terminal, some lead weights off car tires, and a small bag of aluminum cans. There’s a small bible that’s been wet more than dry, and a porn magazine that I would not pick up for a Pulitzer Prize. Bill pushes the cell phone charger as a great deal. I tell him I’ll give him three bucks for the CD, and he very shrewdly tells me I can sell it to one of the workers on the crew for ten bucks, so he will let me have it for five. I give him a five and he quickly squirrels his stuff away, and heads for the truck stop, coughing.
The CD is a bootleg, of course, and likely of the very worst quality. Bill didn’t own anything else really worth anything. An entire life carried on his back, and the very best of it sold for five dollars. Bill can get a six pack of cheap beer for five bucks, drink it quickly, and sleep soundly until it wears off. Or he can get a pack of cheap cigarettes, and poison himself in a different way. By the time you read this, Bill will be one of those people you do not see on the Interstate, invisible and moving slow, a subspecies of traveling human, speeding as fast as the rest of us to the same destination.