Michael Everett casts a glance at the empty car park outside the thrift store where he volunteers. “Where’s yours?” he asks.
I point a hundred or so yards down the street to the Family Dollar convenience store. In the time it takes to blink, his face contorts into a concerned frown. “Hey, you gotta be careful,” he insists. “This ain’t your reg’lar neighbourhood. There are some crackerjacks round here, y’know? Maybe not so much today. It’s colder today. But they out there. You gotta have your wits about you. ‘Specially a guy like you. They’ll know you ain’t from ‘round here.”
It’s the morning after the 2019 Masters Tournament and I’m on Broad Street, just three miles from Augusta National Golf Club. Three miles, but it might as well be three thousand. You don’t find patrons down here. Poverty, yes. Patrons, no. The lawns are overgrown. The paint is peeling off the houses. Even it seems desperate to escape.
In this part of Augusta, the azaleas seldom bloom.
UP ON WASHINGTON ROAD, the television compound opposite the golf club is emptying fast. The mobile studios are rolling out and rolling away, taking their leave for another year. On the corner of Washington and Woodbine, the only evidence that a major golf tournament has just taken place is a huge billboard plastered with a Jordan Spieth advert for Rolex. It’s hard not to wonder what’s worth more: the Swiss timepieces or the houses adjacent.
Further down the street, the roadside ticket touts have gone from the front of the Dollar General, their week flipping the hottest tickets in town done for another 12 months.
Inside, shelves are being replenished. “This is always a crazy week for us,” the cashier tells me. “We’ve sold out of loads of things: ice, deck chairs, hay fever tablets.”
Even the 2D life-size cut-out of Tiger Woods has vanished from the front of the store. “All week, people stopped to get their picture taken with it,” adds the server. “I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe it got stolen, maybe somebody bought it. I don’t know. All I know is it brought people in.”
The gas station directly opposite the golf club has also enjoyed a profitable Masters. “It’s like eight or nine times busier for us than a regular week,” the clerk revealed. “It’s good for the big guy in charge but doesn’t change my pay cheque one bit. Just like any other week.”
Washington Road is lined with just about every fast-food outlet you can think of. Arby’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, Bojangles, Five Guys. This is the heartland of grab ‘n’ go America.
There’s a Hooters, too. The perimeter fence surrounding it and marquee opposite are coming down. For the umpteenth year, the 'restaurant' has hosted John Daly, his family and their huge RV allweek.
The two-time major winner last played in the first men’s major of the season in 2006. Now, he uses the occasion as an opportunity to hawk signed merchandise to his legion of fans. From 10am until 7pm each day, he, his partner Anna and various other members of Long John’s entourage sell signed flags, signed caps, his distinctive Loudmouth clothing and much more besides from fold-down tables in front of their mobile home. It does a brisk trade, too.
“We’re busy all day, every day,” says Anna. “This is my 11th year doing it. John’s been doing it longer. It’s great fun. John loves his fans.”
That love clearly doesn’t extend to the media. When I disclose that I’m a reporter from Scotland, he dives back inside his truck. Perhaps there’s something desperately needing his urgent attention. Perhaps he’s suspicious of reporters after a lifetime of media intrusion. Perhaps he’s embarrassed that, as the world’s biggest golf tournament takes place no more than a mile up the road, he has been reduced to peddling his John Hancock for quick and easy cash.
On the other side of the golf club, the ‘Mema Had One’ antiques shop is dead. Unlike other stores on Washington Road, it has been all week. A shop-hand called Jimmy stops to talk. He’s laden with an armful of branches but wants to chat.
Jimmy, an elderly African-American with just two teeth, both on the bottom row, has an unmistakable warmth. He points to a rusty old Chevy pick-up that sits in front of the shop and laughs. “Gimme an hour and I’ll have her running for ya.”
He knows the Masters has just finished, knows that Tiger Woods has won. But, other than that, the tournament has largely passed him by. “Last year, we was busy one day. I think it rained that day. But don’t nobody come down here. I don’t know why. You’d think all them people being here that we’d be queued out to the street but we ain’t. I don’t know why. It’s too bad.”
Down on Broad Street, ‘bad’ would be an improvement.
TAKE A RIGHT TURN AT THE INTERSECTION of Broad Street and Milledge Road – coming from Augusta National – and you’ll arrive in Sand Hills and Summerville, two of the more prosperous parts of town. Houses here sell for $1million and up. This is where you’ll find Augusta Country Club, so too the Daniel Field airfield, the landing strip of choice for private jets that shuttle the world’s best golfers in and out for the Masters.
Go straight on at the Broad-Milledge intersection – on the opposite side of interstate 28 from Harrisburg – and you’ll find a totally different way of life.
It’s a community dear to the heart of Michael Everett. A tall black guy in his sixties, Everett is loud, animated and disarmingly gregarious. No sooner have I walked into the Mercy Ministries Thrift Store than he has rushed out from behind the counter to welcome me. “Come on in,” he says, shaking my hand. “I hope you enjoy having a look around.”
I can’t help but notice he’s wearing a Masters jumper, the little yellow logo giving the game away.
“Did you enjoy the final round yesterday?” I ask.
“Man, did you see that? Tiger Woods is BLACK! I mean, back,” he says with a booming laugh. “Oh yes sir, Tiger Woods is BACK!”
You get the distinct impression that, without Everett, laughs would be hard to come by, both in this store – so disorganised and cluttered that it looks as though a tornado has ripped through it – and in the community.
The abandoned house just down the street has a ‘CONDEMNED’ sign taped to its front door, sun-faded ‘Paw Patrol’ blinds in the front window all that remain of the kid or kids who once lived there. It’s hard not to wonder what’s become of them.
“People ‘round here, they don’t have much,” says Everett. “That’s why we do what we do. Come, let me show you.”
He guides me into the store's annex, where black bin bags are piled ceiling high with clothes that have been donated. Beyond that is a dark, makeshift canteen where food is served to locals who have either lost their homes or fallen on hard times. Through the adjacent door is a communal area, where volunteers are helping people with benefit applications, job applications, you name it.
Everett reckons they give away more than one hundred bags of food every month. Brand new, $200 mattresses sell for $40. Clothes go for $10 a bag. Kids’ toys for less than a dollar. It’s as far removed from the $4,000-a-year membership of Augusta National Golf Club as you can get. Yet it’s no further from the front gates than a dozen of Dustin Johnson’s very best drives.
I ask if Tiger winning would resonate with the community.
“The thing about Tiger is when he plays, people come to town. You go up to Daniel Field and they all there. Michael Jordan’s private jet is there. Condoleezza Rice’s private jet is there. But when Tiger ain’t here, they ain’t here. And Tiger? Yeah, who ain’t happy to see him back? Maybe it’s even better that it’s because he’s a brother. But you know what people ‘round here would like? Just once? For Tiger to come down here, come to a black church. Just one time. Come and be with us. But he don’t. He flies in to play and flies out to stay. I heard he stays in Atlanta when the Masters is on. I don’t know that for sure but I believe it. It’s too bad.”
We talk some more and, as I leave, him showing me to door with a warning to be careful, he asks where I’m from. “Lemme guess - Ireland?”
“Scotland, but close enough.”
“You comin’ back next year?”
“I hope so.”
“You gonna come back to see me?”
I assure him I will but I know I’m lying.
He gives me a thumbs up and closes the door behind him.
Sitting on the street across the road, a man is having a furious argument with himself. A dog chained to the front porch of a house barks angrily as I walk past. Weeds grow through cracks in the ground and smother walls of ramshackle houses. I get in my car, lock the doors and drive away. As I hit interstate 20, bound for Atlanta airport, one word sits foremost in my mind.
Augusta juxtaposes both sides. The ‘haves’ of many inside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club, and the ‘have nots’ of many on the periphery.
The grass, as it turns out, is not always greener.
• THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN ISSUE 171 OF BUNKERED