Nice work if you can get it

After failing to ride the wave of Rom-mania in 2012, Paul Ryan will go to bed tonight as Speaker of the House.  Once upon a time, this would have made him one of the most powerful people in DC, on a par with a Supreme Court justice or Sonny Jurgensen. As it is, since John Boehner gifted him a budget deal on the way out the door, his main job will be to mill about aimlessly and occasionally vote through some bills to try to make it tough on the Democrats in 2016, which is just as well, because the House Redneck Caucus seems bound and determined not to play nice with anyone, least of all their own party’s leadership.

You can blame this on the Tea Party if you like, or you can point to Sarah Palin as the wellspring of it all, or you can go back to Newt Gingrich and the predictable consequences of pairing a Southernized GOP Congress with an amiable dunce from Texas in the White House, or you can go all the way back to Lee Atwater running a Wallace campaign on behalf of a patrician New Englander with a Houston hotel suite. But really, it all goes back to Nixonland, and the explicit decision that the reactionary forces of 1964 could be combined with a rebellious South to build a new engine in the national GOP. This was the inevitable result of fifty years of nurturing the worst impulses of this country, and for the GOP establishment and its amen corner in the national press to suddenly look up and decry what’s happening to the Republican party is risible in the extreme. In the immortal words of Chris Rock, that tiger went tiger.

I mean, what did you expect?  You spend years if not decades telling people to live in fear, that everyone to the left of John Kasich is Joe Stalin and that the government wants to grind them all into free meatloaf for Mexicans, that they are the true salt of the earth and their racist impulses are to be indulged rather than overcome…this is not an accident, this is not a fluke. The Tea Party is the GOP. This has been the Republican party for the last 20 years. This was the plan all along. This is a designed play. A vast plurality of ignorance, racism and outright stupid, providing automatic response in reaction to constant stimulus from TV, radio and a million “Fw:fw:fwd:FW:FW” emails isn’t a bug, it isn’t a feature, it’s the whole goddamn operating system.

The thing that scares me most isn’t the necks, it’s the people who look sorrowfully on the mess that’s made and still pull the GOP lever anyway. Sure, these hayseeds are all gun suckers who think the country is at risk of Sharia law from ACORN-organized illegal immigrants, but Al Gore is fat and Hollywood liberals are dumb, so vote Republican. That’s exactly how we got here, and it’s the biggest scare going into 2016: that the likes of Donald Trump could wind up in the White House because enough people realize he’s a loudmouthed business failure who spun an ego into reality stardom, but they’re tired of Hillary, so whatever.  Meanwhile, we continue with the Republican primary clown show. There are 14 candidates still in play, not because they’re viable candidates in any way, but because there’s enough loose money floating around – not enough to run a viable campaign, but enough to keep your campaign bobbing along at 7% and build name recognition for an inevitable Fox News commentary job and book deal and speaking engagements. There are maybe three serious candidates, a couple of maybe-tweeners and not less than five outright grifters on the march (and the grifters have the top three spots at the moment.  You can tell they’re grifters because the three of them combined have zero days experience in elected office and want you to believe that President of the United States is an entry-level job in politics.)

Then again, Paul Ryan managed to spin an unworkable budget that he never had to pass, a smattering of applause lines and four undignified months on the campaign trail into being only two heartbeats away from the Presidency rather than one. The hustle pays off, if you’re the hustler.

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten


There is another edit.

In this edit, I miss the boat on that television show the same as every other overhyped TV show. I don’t get interested enough to look for things about it online. I don’t find a mailing list, or the mailing list spun off from it. I don’t subscribe. I don’t have those people backstopping me, providing moral support. And when everything finally goes off the rails, I wind up washed out of school, broken up with the girl who ruined everything, living at home and commuting to my $9-an-hour temp job in the HR department of a company so stodgy that Casual Friday means you can omit the necktie if you like. I’ve got a four-year-old Saturn with 100,000 miles on it already, a 3-year-old Power Macintosh that’s already starting to show its age, a cell phone I don’t need and can’t afford, and thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

No Ohio girl to put me up for the summer waiting for things to happen. No Notre Dame grad willing to talk me through snapping SIMMs into a logic board or take a chance interviewing me for his old job. No Metro. No Quake. No Sign of the Whale or Ireland’s Four Provinces. And no life-altering wedding weekend in Santa Cruz. Just me, and Birmingham, and no future.

It could have gone a couple different ways. In the best case scenario, I find a better job, find a way to live downtown somewhere, meet someone (possibly an alumna of my old high school?) and carve out a little blue bubble of my own in the sea of redneck. But it’s just as likely I end up over the mountain, married to some ex-sorority girl whose Greek letters still decorate the back of our SUV with the two car seats in it, regular doses of Alabama football and the occasional Atlanta getaway for shopping and fancy stuff we don’t have at home. 

A life lived as a medium-sized fish with its fins clipped, in a not-particularly-fresh pond. A life of lying awake at night, wondering what I’d missed out on by so rarely venturing outside the confines of my childhood, of staying stung and bruised by the failure of my one limited escape attempt. A life measured out in Panther basketball games, in too many helpings of Milo’s fries, in family arguments and gritted-teeth smiles and quiet desperation.



I’ve said it before, over and over: had Birmingham in 1990 been more like Birmingham in 2010, I would have felt better about staying around.  More restaurants, better beer selection, places like Bottletree or Iron City.  But how much of that depends on the Internet? Had there been Facebook and Twitter and Yelp, maybe I would have done a better job of finding what was there already.  But I would have had to live downtown, because there wouldn’t be any hopping transit over from someplace else. The buses don’t run that way and there hasn’t been a streetcar since the early 1950s. And despite the presence of a new bike share that just opened last week, there’s still no indication that transit is going to be a thing anytime soon.  Avondale and Lakeview are exciting new neighborhoods to go along with Southside in general and Five Points in particular, but getting back and forth might be a trial. 

I distinctly remember living in DC when the state quarters first started to emerge, and being surprised that I saw them when I went back to Alabama at the holidays. And being surprised at South Park references on the radio, as if they didn’t get Comedy Central there. The Internet came to Birmingham just the same as anyplace else, and people line up for the new iPhone at the Summit just the same as they do in Palo Alto or Clarendon. Geography alone doesn’t make the change happen, and I would have moved right along with the rest of the world – on the leading edge, certainly, relative to the people around me, but I would have still gone out and bought the first iPhone the day it landed, most likely. I would have had my phone on Powertel just so I could be on GSM. I would have signed up for BellSouth DSL at the earliest opportunity. Even in those dark days in early summer of 1997, I was already plotting to figure out how I could replace that PowerMac 6100 with a PowerBook 1400. So some of what helped me along would have come to town – not so much and not so quickly, but some of it.

And there were things there already. City Stages was the event of the year. The SEC played its football and basketball championships in town – not permanently, but it happened. Not one but two independent coffeehouses were open in Southside by 1994. That little stretch of Highland Avenue had a Frank Stitt restaurant, and Charlemagne Records and McNolia’s and the Lion and Unicorn comic book shop. By the end of my undergrad time, Red Mountain Red Ale was on sale, the first new beer to be made in Alabama since Prohibition. There was enough there to tempt my appetite for more, which is probably what helped propel me to Nashville in the first place.



Much has been lost, as much as gained. City Stages is no more. Bottletree folded, as did Freshfully. The Mill is gone, where you could first buy Red Mountain Red Ale. Both of the coffeehouses vanished, one replaced with a bar that’s been there ever since. Gorin’s Ice Cream, Dugan’s, Jonathan Benton Booksellers, Dexter’s on Broadway, the Tired Texan BBQ, Eastwood Mall, the Birmingham Bulls hockey team: all gone. Century Plaza: closed and empty. The Riverchase Galleria, the Colonnade, Wildwood: sparse and dying. My old high school: decamped to the suburbs and turned into a resume line for the heavily striving instead of a redneck-Hogwarts refuge for the gifted. Parisian and Pizitz have both become Belk and the old Pizitz building downtown is being gutted for condominiums. Neither the school my father attended nor the one where he worked are in the same building anymore. Gussied-up strip malls predominate and have metastasized at every major freeway on all sides of town. And while the Barons have a new stadium in the heart of downtown, the old stadium – which had the misfortune to be five years too early for the new-old retro-park look – sits empty except for high school football and the SEC baseball tournament.

There are newer and better things, and they are more likely to appear downtown than in Hoover, but there aren’t necessarily more of them. Frank Stitt has three restaurants now, and you can find unrelated places like Saw’s (three restaurants) or Babalu (tapas and tacos) or Revelator Coffee across from the Alabama Theater, and the bikes will take you from Lakeview to Uptown to Railroad Park. But the transit situation is still inferior to what it was sixty years ago, and the schools haven’t gotten materially better, and the city is still divided on whether to allow Uber to operate. And Birmingham’s biggest handicap remains Alabama: a state where the doctrine of “I got mine; fuck you” is written into law at almost every level alongside a pervasive sense that allowing something to change and be different is a danger to be prevented and obstructed at every turn.

I didn’t have twenty years to wait: that’s my refrain, my excuse, my justification for why I had to leave for someplace with more trains and fewer Finebaum callers. But upon further review, looking at what’s around now, it’s tough to say that things have been altered that much relative to anywhere else. You can get Apple products there, sure. You can get Amazon Prime. You can get DirecTV and U-Verse and access the internet. Twitter and Instagram and Slack and Yelp and Swarm work just the same there.

But you’re going to need a car and you’re going to have to drive it. You’re not going to be summoning a ride with an app and you’re not going to be checking timetables and stepping onto the light rail. You’re not going to find Indian food or Brazilian rodizio or a half hour jaunt to the beach or a winery. You’re going to have to be prepared to do a lot of online ordering. And if you can live with all that, you maybe can get an approximation of sort of what you’d have in DC or Silicon Valley. 



I wonder where the black folks are.

Not in Birmingham generally. In a place where the airport is now named for a civil rights leader whose national recognition is shamefully thin, in a place that still suffers internationally for the sins of its fathers and grandfathers fifty years ago and its shameful slowness in coming to terms with that sin, you can find plenty of African-American folks. The question becomes: can you find them in Railroad Park, at the Uptown, at lunch at Babalu and in the lobby of the Aloft at the XYZ bar and riding the share bikes on 20th Street? Is all this Birmingham change just another chapter in the gentrification story, or is some of this money and building and newness going to be sown in North Birmingham and the West End?

On early evidence, it looks like the potential is there.  The nonwhite population in Birmingham is certainly a majority, and if you look for a nonwhite presence in the restaurants and coffeeshops and other new modern cool places, you see it. The proportions may not be quite what you see in the gentrifying areas of Silicon Valley, but that’s as much an indictment of the extent to which the Valley has elevated its own historical minorities as opposed to people of color who just flooded in to attend Stanford or just arrived fresh from IIT Kanpur.

You look at the Valley, though, and the spread was up the Peninsula and into San Francisco. SoMa isn’t any better for the people who were already in SoMa, not that there were that many, and it’s possible to say the same in Birmingham. When so many old buildings were sitting abandoned because it wasn’t worth the money to pull them down if no one wanted to build over them, there’s not a whole bunch of folks there. Uber may be controversially going into Oakland, but the East Bay hasn’t had nearly the caliber of tech colonization. Mountain View may find that Castro Street is being turned into the methadone Mission, but Fremont and Newark and San Leandro are same as it ever was.

It’s possible that there isn’t a Southern-fried version of the New Urbanism – maybe this is just bog-standard Millennial twentysomething-ism, same as everywhere else where people have suddenly decided they can only live in the city. Portlandia with a gravelly drawl, the overflow room for the new-look Nashville with dark beers instead of hot chicken. Maybe in the twenty-five years I waited, Birmingham evolved into…Birmingham twenty-five years on. And yet that isn’t an indictment, necessarily. Birmingham’s improvements aren’t coming from a geyser of venture capital in search of a unicorn, they aren’t coming from the loose money chasing a bubble economy, they’re slow and steady alterations that nonetheless alter the fabric of the city. Eleven acres of green space with free wireless and bike share, a brand new baseball stadium, derelict light industrial space turning into restaurants and apartments and nightlife…these are changes that are persistent and will hopefully stick for a long time.

And in another ten or twenty years, maybe it gets attractive enough that people downtown start to agitate for the things that will seep deeper into the fabric of the city and its surroundings. Maybe instead of pulling up sticks and moving to Vestavia, they agitate for better schools downtown and the taxes to pay for them. Maybe they get tired of driving and lean on MAX to run buses in a way that you can actually use, or even implement bus rapid transit. And maybe that’s just the way things would be heading anyway, maybe that’s what Generation Z will demand everywhere, but if it gets better, it hardly matters why, right?

Is it a place I could live now? Under what circumstances?  I don’t know any more than I did two weeks ago, but for different reasons now. And it’s forcing me to take a closer look at where I live and how I live now.  And for that alone, it was worth the trip.


Well, Volkswagen is currently having that dream where you’re standing butt naked in the middle of a stage and suddenly the walls drop away and the whole world can see you. With the revelation that the 2-liter TDI diesel engine was beating emissions tests with software chicanery rather than actually running clean, literally millions of automobiles from the Volkswagen Automotive Group (which includes Porsche, Audi, Seat and Skoda, and for crying out loud could you come up with a better collective acronym) are suddenly out of compliance with government regulation – the repair of which will cost billions of dollars and almost certainly result in compromised performance both in power and fuel efficiency.

I have multiple friends who have recently bought TDI VWs and they are Frisbee pissed about it. And this almost certainly lops off the Golf SportWagen from the list; if its mileage suffers even a little it’ll drop below the financially viable point. We’re basically down to the Prius V and the Chevy Volt, and the last right now is only a semi-serious concern of mine until I can actually sit in the 2016 model and see what’s going on. But as with the phones I’ve so heavily discussed, the best car is the one you’ve already got, and despite its erratic performance, the VW Rabbit is going to remain the car for the foreseeable future.  After all, all our travel plans now call for trains and planes through the end of January at least, and I don’t think we have to drive anyplace further than a BART station until then.

The thing is, for an all-electric vehicle to be viable, it’s got to have a range of a legit 100 miles. And right now that’s not out there unless you splash out on a Tesla S, and I don’t want to spend $80K for a mid-to-full-sized car. I don’t need anything much bigger than the Rabbit myself, and the family consensus is that the Prius V is as big as we need – because it’s a hatch. A non-hatch sport sedan is asking too much, and Tesla doesn’t play in the non-Eloi marketplace yet. (The notional Tesla 3 is being forecast for 2018, which makes it as nearly vaporware as makes no difference. Both our cars aren’t going to last three more years in normal use.)

More to the point, it’s starting to look like a legit range of 75 miles would be plenty for most of our purposes, especially if charging is available there (electric charging at Daly City BART would be a game-changer). At that point, if you can charge in SF or Berkeley, those are viable destinations, and even if you can’t, you can get to the BART or Caltrain that takes you there. Work, groceries, the San Jose Giants, collecting folks from the airport (long as you fly through SJC), or even the ever-rarer trip to the mall or for a Victory Slice – all doable with a range of about 75 miles.  And at that point, as the wife has pointed out, long-haul trips to Disneyland, or the Central Coast, or Tahoe, just mean renting a car for less than the cost of a monthly payment. Which means you could get by with, say…an e-Golf.

Electric is coming. Might be time to jump on board.