The Southern Thing, again

Maybe it would have been different if I’d left sooner. Maybe it would have been different if my dad hadn’t died. Maybe it would have been different if I had gone away and gotten to see what the world had to offer from a position of strength, and then come back to see high school friends and indulge in a city slowly growing into modernity. 

But the chain of events was wrong. I stayed for college, the biggest mistake of my life. When I left, I was still anchored to the bad stuff in Birmingham, and when my world fell apart, I started over from zero in a faraway place, and was rebuilt as a different person. And Birmingham wasn’t home for him, could never be home for him.  As it stands, half my heart is on the Orange Line Metro at 9 AM Monday morning, and the other half is watching the sun set on San Gregorio beach from the shoulder of Highway 1. Alabama doesn’t enter into it.

And yet.

Set me down on I-65, with puffy white clouds in the sky, somewhere between Montgomery and Huntsville…and I feel something. I don’t know how to describe it. It feels familiar, like something from another life, maybe the set of a movie I saw once, like another world that a previous incarnation lived in. Not deja vu exactly, because I know I’ve been there before, but it’s not really what I remember. I think the apt comparison is to Vanderbilt: I’m a fan and a supporter, but everyone concerned is completely different than when I was there and I haven’t had any contact since graduation with the people who were there when I was. Similarly, there are a handful of people in and around Birmingham who might remember me from way back when, but my family is a mess and what friends I had are scattered. And what makes Birmingham attractive now? Railroad Park, the new Barons stadium, half a dozen local breweries and a thriving foodie scene and Revelator Coffee and electric bike share?

I mean, think about it…that which makes someplace the “it city” is usually a smear of some kind of gritty authenticity on which is suddenly plopped a melange of craft beer, bike sharing, artisan bakeries, Instagram-friendly scenery (ALL THE MURALS), that sort of thing. And the “authentic” things of the place slowly get overrun by their commercialized imitators. Saw’s instead of the Tired Texan. Hattie B’s instead of Joe D’s Hot Chicken Club. Sure, there are great things to see in Birmingham, but do the list – local craft beer, like Good People or Avondale? Bike sharing? Neighborhoods with their vintage architecture and business street intact? And old theater with a Wurlitzer organ and old movies? Foodie dining? What is there in Birmingham that wasn’t already long established in Silicon Valley before the iPhone was invented? I’ll tell you: special dogs, Dreamland ribs and the Civil Rights Trail. That’s the list.

Again, there is an edit that sends me away for undergrad – not even necessarily to Vanderbilt, but maybe to Tulane or Columbia or Brown or Stanford or UCSD – in which I don’t even go to grad school, because I don’t need to launder my undergrad experience. And because I got out of Birmingham for college, I can go back home, instead of already being “home” as the black cloud grinds it into a fine misery. It’s tough to go back when most all the things that make it worth going back to are things you already had in 2006 where you live now.

I just don’t have the draw. I can make my own barbecue, I can drive three miles to Popeye’s, I struggle to get good collards but they never cooked collards in my house anyway. I don’t have the sidewalk alumni crowds that turn my college sports into a religious practice. I’m the only member of the family still carried on the rolls of our ancestral church, whose doors I haven’t darkened in twenty years. I can’t stand the humidity, there’s no one around that I’m legitimately close to, and you have to change planes to get there.

God bless whoever stayed in the blue dots, holding them down and trying to build for a better day. Whatever it is they found, whatever it is they have there, is something I just don’t have and maybe never did. And if that were ever going to happen, it would have happened by age 46.

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