On Tuesday, November 1st, I set out on a 700 plus mile adventure into the eerie and desolate place known as Alabama. I had never visited that state before in my life, and of course I had some expectations, but what I did find, I never would have guessed.
In one day I drove from the fairly upscale suburb of Lake Ridge, Virginia to the town of Pelham, Alabama, which lies about 20 miles south of one of the states two major cities, Birmingham.
I first entered the state via Interstate 59, an interstate so straight, long and boring that it makes the New Jersey Turnpike look exciting. The moment I crossed the state line, the highway suddenly became shitty. This was somewhat expected. What wasn’t expected was that only the left lane was drivable, unless you wished to suffer the repeated bumps and dips in the road. The trucker ahead of me seemed to concur, and we both stayed in the left lane, just the two of us driving this lonely road, making our way through the Alabama night with not a peep of civilization in sight.
12 hours after my journey began, I finally arrived in Pelham. Shortly afterwords, I fell asleep, waiting to soak in all that Alabama had to offer as soon as the sun rose.
I woke up and took a short trip around town, noting my surroundings, and stopping by a gas station to pick up a pack of smokes. Ahead of me in line was a Hispanic woman and her son, who looked to be about seven years old. The woman was buying an international calling card, and her son had to work as an interrupter to tell her that the change she counted out was insufficient. This sort of thing is not all that uncommon in Virginia either, and usually people just sigh, waiting for someone who can’t speak English count out change. Not in Alabama. The woman standing behind me in line, looked at me and said audibly “those goddamned Spics.” The woman at the counter looked up and nodded as she counted the woman’s change. The Hispanic woman left with her calling card to make a call on the pay phone outside, and I got a pack of smokes. The same woman who had nodded at the customer’s racial slur gave me my change and said, “Have a Blessed day.”
I drove up and down the only major road in Pelham, county road 31. I noticed that although there seemed to be places of business, there didn’t seem to be any stores. No movie theaters. No malls. “Pelham Mall” was one of only two strip malls, both of which looked virtually abandoned. The only stores I did recognize was a single McDonalds and Taco Bell. The vast majority of the stores all seem to be gas stations. Days later Clint (not his real name), the friend I was visiting, explained that a lot of youth used the various gas stations as hang outs.
But what would you expect from a place out in the sticks? The next day Clint and I drove north to the city of Birmingham to visit his friend Jack, a guy I didn’t know. The only problem was, that this wasn’t exactly a city at all. From my vantage point from Northern Virginia, it looked more like a not-so-well populated suburb. “Well, maybe it’s just quaint,” I thought. That’s when I met Jack, who asked me right off, “So, what do you think of the asshole of the country?” I shrugged my solders while everyone else laughed. Clint later told me that a lot of people from Alabama say, “oh, Alabama isn’t so bad. Now Mississippi, that’s a shithole!”
While at Jack’s house, he explained that we shouldn’t wonder into the back yard, because his grandfather was back there with the dog. Confused, I asked what was the big deal about that? Jack, avoiding eye contact with me, said that his dog sometimes bit people. I didn’t think much of it. Later that day, I caught a good look at the dog, who wasn’t much bigger than a Weener Dog. Perplexed, I said, “is that what I was supposed to be scared about?” Another friend of Clint’s, Sam, had stopped by, and he said, “that little fucking dog will grab a hold of your ankle and won’t let go.” He lifted his pants leg to show me that he had learned this the hard way. Then Jack finally added that, “plus my grandfather is back there.”
It seemed that Jack’s grandfather was a World War II vet. Jack said that he had been in the second wave of the Normandy invasion. Jack jokingly said that his granddad was still hunting for Nazis in his backyard.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Look” Jack told me.
I looked over around the corner into his back yard. Sure enough, there was his grandfather sitting in a chair with the dog, with what looked like a rifle in his lap. “Jesus Christ!”, I said, “he’s got a gun!”
Jack explained it was just a bee-bee gun, and that his favorite passtime was to shoot squirrels with it.
Clint and I went back to his apartment, to get some sleep. Sitting on his sofa I turned to TV on. What the hell was this crap? There were a few familiar channels, E! Entertainment Television, Comedy Central, Fox News. But as I flipped through the channels I noticed something. Here was a Baptist preacher talking. And another. And another. And another. Then there were two old guys on a boat fishing. Then channel after channel after channel of football games. None of them the NFL. All of them college games. What the hell is this?
I figured I’d better not think too much about it and went to sleep.
A few days later we visited Sam at his apartment. He was throwing a party, and both Clint and I were anxious to get out and do something. Clint and I are both anarcho-syndicalist leftists, and Sam was a leftist. The difference though is that Clint grew up here in Northern Virginia, while Sam had lived in Alabama most of his life. All of us are into punk rock, and within that culture you find quite a large number of left-wing radicals. Within the punk community there is a general disdain for sports, but a friend of Sam’s called him, to argue with him over who was going to win tomorrow’s college football game.
“People make phone calls over this stuff?” I asked Clint. Clint laughed and nodded. On the phone, Sam said to his friend, “oh you won’t want to watch the second half because Alabama is going to kick LSU’s ass.” At which point his friend hung up on him. Sam said, “sorry, I have a friend who’s a big LSU fan.” I said, “what the fuck is LSU?”
Later that evening I was talking to Sam’s girlfriend Sarah, who was also a punker, and who seemed to me to be a pretty fun and nice person. Somehow, the subject of Rosa Parks’ passing came up, and Sarah said, “oh Rosa Parks”, rolling her eyes. “She was just a person. She didn’t do anything.”
Clint looked uneasily at me, shrugged his solders and said, “that’s Alabama for you.” Later Sarah told me, “oh, I’m not a racist,” but then made fun of someone who was at the party because he was “a little Jew.” My guess that this was pretty much in all good fun, and no menace was meant by it, but it would never occur to me to even ponder someone’s faith, much less might light of it. And like I said, Sarah is a very sweet person, and I thoroughly enjoyed her company, but I wonder if I would have if I had been born black or Jewish.
Later, I was smoking outside, and I struck up a conversation with a guy who I did not know. He asked me if I had ever visited some restaurant that I had never heard of. I told him, that no I hadn’t, but of course, I was just visiting from Virginia. He said I should go before I leave, saying you can get some damn good turtle there.
“Turtle?” I asked.
“Yeh,” he explained. “You never had turtle before? That’s good eattin’. Squirrel too.”
“Well, I’m sure it is pretty good, but I wouldn’t ever know, since I’m a vegatarian.” I told him.
“Really?!?” he asked, a bit perplexed. He paused for a moment and said slowly, “I don’t mean any offense by this, but are you a queer?”
Time to leave. I headed back to Clint’s apartment. The next night, thinking over the party’s conversations, I told Clint, “you know, Sam’s a pretty cool guy, but it just seems weird as shit seeing a punker watch football on TV.”
“You have no idea.” Clint told me. He explained that around here if you didn’t watch football you were considered “some kind of alien.” He said the biggest thing around here was if you’re an Alabaster or Alabama fan.
Clint went on to explain that the big thing around here is how well “The Crimson Tide” is doing.
“The Crimson what?” I asked.