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The Gatherer

Thomas Eskew is all about cars, death and rock 'n' roll

It looks as though an unruly band of college students lives at the big old Tudor on Springdale Drive. At 8 a.m., you expect to be greeted by a bleary-eyed, ripped T-shirt clad punk who reeks of pot and stale beer. That would make sense, considering the car in the driveway — a VW Bug made to look like a pig — complete with snout and pigtail, with a Pink Floyd logo on its side.
Other mobile oddities sit silent in the morning mist as well. Maybe you've seen the other Bug, the one with two front ends. To drivers approaching it in traffic, it looks like it's being backed down the road. There's the 1967 VW truck with a crew cab, a wide, low-riding, fin-tailed 1966 Buick Electra deuce-and-a-quarter and a 1947 DeSoto. There's wild art in the yard, but closer inspection shows it to be mostly Christine Sibley pieces, too pricey for those who still thumb-tack posters to the wall.
The doorbell is loud and somber, echoing beyond the wrought-iron grille of the door. Looking around, there's more evidence of wayward minds. Nearly every human-like piece of statuary is missing a limb or head. A Sesame Street Big Bird chair, just right for a toddler, sits with its seat full of rain water in an overgrown flowerbed. Steely Dan is spilling through the big windows.
Eventually a man with a long white beard answers the door in a navy blue sweatshirt and khaki shorts, his hair pulled back in a wood-grain barrette.
His name is Thomas Eskew, he's 71 years old, and he was raised on a defunct plantation near Anderson, S.C. His family has lived there since 1840. Just a few years ago, when a mega-store bought some of the land, he was in charge of moving more than 100 graves — his family and their servants and slaves. He was an officer in the U.S. Army in the 1950s. Then he went to work for the Anaconda Aluminum Co. for the next 30 years selling the metal to corporations. Finally, he landed in Atlanta and bought up several apartment complexes.
His twin interests, cars and death, are married in the form of two 1969 Cadillac hearses that nest side-by-side in a neighbor's garage. They're at the neighbor's because — and here's a phrase right out of Foxworthy — he doesn't have room for any more cars in his yard. Each New Year's, at the stroke of midnight, he sounds the siren on one of the hearses which also, during its morbid life, was an ambulance.
"I like to have things that no one else has," he says. "I think I'm looking for exclusivity. How many other people have a Pink Floyd car?"
The pig car was given away by Z-93 in 1992 he says, "when the Floyds came to town." The kid who won it sold it to him. Just this morning he noticed the gas tank's hatch was open and that the gas cap had been purloined. He opens and shuts the hatch and looks warily out at the street. "Someone took it. Now I'll have to get another one."
Cars aren't the only things he collects. He also collects clocks, particularly grandfather clocks, meat blocks, porcelain — all kinds — and gas pumps.
"Even my dogs are unusual," he says. "My veterinarian doesn't know anyone else who owns salukis."
The house itself was a school called Fairview, a place for children with special needs until sometime in the 1960s. Eskew bought it in 1972. A rusted iron swing set and merry-go-round in the enormous backyard are evidence of its former life.
Under the chandelier that hangs in the carport is a sign that looks a lot like one that stood at the intersection of Johnson Road and Zonolite Drive until about a month ago, for "Swingtime Professional Golf Instruction."
He says he took it from the public right-of-way where it shouldn't have been posted. Eskew says getting what you want, especially if no one else has it, is a matter of chutzpah.
"You have to have the balls to ask for it," he says, scooting past the granite model of a burial vault that sits atop a scale in his hallway. "The scale's from the men's room of the Fox Theatre," he says. "I might actually give that back one day."