For people of Buckhead, a bitter taste of reality

Numbness and sadness permeate upscale area where nine were killed

July 31, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ATLANTA -- People in the elite enclave of Buckhead picked up their routines yesterday, shaken and angry on the day after a gunman terrorized two offices on a rampage through their booming stretch of tinted glass buildings.

How could it happen in Buckhead, the wealthy section of Atlanta immortalized in Tom Wolfe's latest novel, "A Man in Full," as the home of the masters of the New South, a place where sleek business towers give way to houses with lushly landscaped lawns?

What surprises -- and saddens -- people here is that they aren't more surprised. After watching TV images in recent years of people fleeing office buildings and schools from Oklahoma City to Littleton, Colo., Thursday's shooting that killed nine and left 13 injured seemed like a rerun.

"There's such a numbness right now. People are so used to seeing this happen it's like, OK, it's happened again," said Liza Scully, 17, a lifeguard at the exclusive Piedmont Driving Club, where mothers sunned themselves and watched their children practice diving yesterday.

A few miles away in Buckhead's financial center, where Mark Barton once worked as a day trader and returned Thursday to open fire on employees in two office buildings, business was back to its frenetic pace.

This a neighborhood of high stakes and high stress, where the local Mexican restaurant, On the Border, has to put its managers to work as cooks to get the brokers and traders through their fajitas and back to the office before they lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"All my tables here are always on the phone," said Heather Holloway, a server at the restaurant.

Yesterday, traffic jammed Buckhead's intersections again and employees moved freely in and out of their buildings. The day before, helicopters hovered above, sirens blared and workers were locked in their offices while police hunted for a gunman on the loose.

But for some people, Buckhead was bouncing back a bit too quickly.

Rebecca Grubelic, branch administrator of Buckhead Bank -- across the street from one of the offices where people were killed -- said the buildings should have closed yesterday to honor the dead. After two women ran screaming into the bank on Thursday, the bank locked its doors and shepherded its employees into interior rooms, away from the windows, during the manhunt. Hours later, as police closed in, Barton killed himself.

"It's a total disrespect for life," Grubelic said, in a subdued tone that matched the mood in many places yesterday. "They should have closed the building and said OK, take a day; money will stop. The attitude of our society nowadays is not to [honor] life but how much can I have and earn?"

At the All-Tech Investment Group office, where four people were killed, traders streamed in all day to offer help and support as contractors worked to replace carpeting and paint. "It's not pretty in here," said Robert Ogust, a company executive vice president, who said he has been struck by the traders' composure and dedication to rebuild the office so it can be open for trading Monday.

The shooting, which brought helmeted FBI agents onto the sleek corporate campuses, couldn't have happened at a place more flush with cash, construction and optimism. Buckhead, with its 61,000 residents, was the site of two-thirds of the new residential construction in Atlanta in the 1980s. Atlanta continues to grow: New homes and stores are under construction all over Buckhead and neighboring areas. Midday traffic is a mess.

The carnage, though viewed here as the work of a madman rather than a symptom of a problem unique to Atlanta, reminded some folks that they liked the Old South better.

Maybe, they say, prosperity at times spawns trouble.

"I'd rather that the big companies stop moving their headquarters here," said Sarah Alvarez, a graphic designer, on her way out of Toys `R' Us. "There's a down side to growing and all this progressiveness. With it comes more people, more activity. We feel very vulnerable, ever since the Olympics." That bombing, in July 1996, was followed by bombings at an abortion clinic and a gay nightclub in the Atlanta area a few months later.

Like others, she wasn't surprised at the massacre. "I could probably buy a gun tomorrow, even though I have no idea where to go. I could probably research it in five minutes. Look at Columbine, Oklahoma City. How can you say any place is immune? It's not about New York City anymore. It's about anywhere, and that's very sad."

For those born and bred in Buckhead, where gardens are so lush, flowers so brilliant and trees so tall and leafy that they form canopies that almost block the sky, the idea that massacres have lost their shock value -- and that Buckhead can make grim headlines, too -- is a bitter pill.

"We feel just tremendous, gut-wrenching sadness," said Dudley L. Moore III, 32, a Buckhead native, sitting in the informal dining room of the Piedmont Driving Club, the one where you don't have to wear a jacket and tie.

"I heard on the radio today that one of the ladies who is going to live will be blind for the rest of her life. We feel anger that this man had to take his troubles out on innocent people," Moore said. "And we feel unjustified embarrassment and shame that it happened here.

"We live in an age where the inconceivable is becoming believable."

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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