I didn’t know Ort personally. I’d met him a couple of times at Flicker Theatre & Bar and The Manhattan in my early days of being an East Coast transplant to Athens. I’d heard the legend of him: a big guy with a big voice and an encyclopedic knowledge of local music. He was talked about like a wise wizard in a fable—if Ort recognizes the band on your T-shirt, then he’ll tell you things about them you’ve never known. Ort did not regard me reverently when we met. He looked me up and down, shook my hand and said a few words before turning back to his notepad and continuing to jot down who knows what. I wasn’t offended—he was clearly busy with his writing, working on something important to him. Everybody either knew or knew of him, and there will always be a serious respect for who he was to this town.
Ort was “Old Athens” to me. Of course the first thing that comes to my aging mind is the pittance of rent I was paying in 2010, but that low cost of living was indicative of a town with a robust working class that could afford to live near their workplaces and social spaces. People had the ability to work less and play more. There was the economic freedom to make art for fun and not for profit. When rent is low and the neighbors are cool, you can start a band and practice in your living room before work. You can hang a friend’s artwork and line up a few musicians to play, and you can ask guests to bring potluck-style dishes to share. Perhaps people would eventually learn through the grapevine that you had a warm home full of creativity and friendship, and someone would refer a traveler to your living room couch for an evening. And maybe you’d even give your house a silly name, something like the Plush Palace or Hotel Hanky Panky, just to be cute.
I can’t imagine having roommates or even a houseguest these days. And no more walking to Hot Corner either, now that even a studio near downtown can go for like $1,300 per month. There used to be lots of leaning, ancient houses in and around Boulevard where I could pay my measly $200 per month and walk to my various jobs. We had a colony of bats living in the walls of one house (yes, bats), but I had an en-suite bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The windows were all original, if not drafty to boot, but I loved that house. I think of it often. I drive by it occasionally and see Jeeps and G-Wagons parked on the lawn, and I wonder if the bats are still there.
Losing Ort has me thinking a lot about the version of this town that we romanticize, the one that I chose to stay in instead of moving to Atlanta like I’d originally planned. You know, the weirdo artist freak town that just so happens to have the winningest college football team in America nearby. Two championships in a row should have had me buzzing, and maybe it did for a second until I saw the downtown “celebration” on Reddit. I’ve been keeping this to myself because I know it’s not a popular opinion, and we’re all supposed to be like “Rah rah, go Dawgs” right now, but are they going to do this every year? Are the police going to allow them to set trees on fire and destroy public art and private property if they win again next year?
I am thankful for the brief interactions I had with Ort, and I hope he didn’t have these kinds of soupy, anxiety-driven worries about the state of working-class Athens like I do. I got the sense of someone living vibrantly in their world and holding close the things they loved—records, bars, live music—while not sweating the other stuff. Maybe that isn’t the case, but from the outside looking in, Ort exuded a peacefulness and acceptance that I aspire towards. Times have to change, it’s best to worry only about the things you can control, and I don’t want to become a complaining fuddy-duddy who has anxiety attacks around playoff time. I want to fill my home with my favorite music, I want to have a designated stool at a cool old bar on Hot Corner, and I want the sight of me to remind people of the best version of this place.
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