What Atlanta water boys and American politics have in common

Black teens and young men hustling to sell bottled water at busy intersections has been a mainstay for years. But their desperate insistence on making sales and the public’s annoyance with them increased exponentially this year.

COVID-19, poverty and civic unease all kind of melded together with the water boys to make it a summer sideshow to the news narratives of pandemic, racial unrest, and the most divisive election in our lifetime.

In July, I spent an afternoon at the intersection of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard where teens plied their trade and a sense of danger bubbled. The security guard at the BP station there started wearing a bulletproof vest, saying he had been threatened for calling the cops on a kid with a gun and that various bands of youths had vied for ownership of the corner.

Marc KD Boyd gives instructions to water sellers at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Blvd as Sheldon Peoples, 16, hustles to the safety of the sidewalk. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Into that mess stepped Boyd, a Marine, artist and gearhead who assembles airplanes at Lockheed Martin and lives up the street. He got them safety vests and, along with his friend KaCey Venning, tried to smooth out the youths’ rough edges and teach them some sales strategies and life lessons — including math and the basics of mechanics in his garage.

This week, about a half-dozen youths were still at it in Boyd’s garage, now making “Water Boyz in the Hood” T-shirts, which they are selling, naturally, on the streets.

“We’re teaching them to buy their own supplies, what sizes to make, to see what’s selling,” he said. “It’s an organizational lesson.”

In the summer, 22 teens and young men came around to his house for meals, the lessons, and a sense that someone gave a damn about them. That has dwindled to perhaps 10.

Boyd said a former stripper who is selling candy peeled off a few of his charges. She figured they were good at sales, so, why not have them try a new product?

“I can’t compete with a stripper,” he said. “I’ve been to three wars and seen a lot (he shakes his head) but I’ve seen nothing like that.”

Weird, he said, albeit in a 2020 kind of way.

The Marine in the 41-year-old Boyd is still evident in his lean, ramrod straight posture and his demand for manners and discipline.

I came across Boyd three years ago during the Atlanta elections when he ran a weekly open-mic event in East Atlanta called Feed a Starving Artist. Singers, poets, rappers, violinists, even mimes would compete and the top vote-getter would earn a small cash prize. It was a quasi-political process. “You persuade the crowd by your talent, or you could win by just bringing out your base,” he said.

Since he was attracting a diverse, ready-made crowd, local pols took note and would come by on meet-and-greets. Almost…

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