Where I Am Now

I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, morning, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music of a farther room.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot

 

I measure the advent of spring by natural occurrences visible outside my windows. First come a few of the 90 crocuses planted at random in the front yard, followed soon after by the delicate rusty pink blooms of my neighbor’s front yard crabapple tree.

Next, that same neighbor’s large back yard cherry tree bursts into white blossoms and fills my back bedroom window. It’s filling it now.

When the neighboring cherry blossoms yield to leaves, my own front yard cherry tree begins to bloom with a display of delicate pink blossoms. By the time those blossoms drop, most everything else is blooming and sprouting and leafing and the herbs that plan to return have started to do so. So far, my chives have returned with a vengeance, but my mint, surprisingly, is missing in action.

The small redbud in my back yard is making me nervous again. Last year was its first year in the ground and it finally sprouted its heart-shaped leaves after a long period of acting as a dead stick. I trust it is bluffing again this year and will eventually bloom and grow as it did last summer.

These small occurrences cheer me up. The longer days and the promise of summer give me hope and energy.


Recently, at the end of a long conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was at table with four friends from various stages of my life. The conversation was lively and I must have fallen uncharacteristically quiet and pensive.

“Eddie,” said my friend, Patty (who has known me long enough that she still calls me “Eddie”), “what are you thinking? Where are you?”

“I’m just listening.” And that was true, I was listening to friends I have known for decades now and I see them annually in different places that host our convention. I was thinking carefully about their lives since we were last together … and about my own.


During the time that my father was so sick, leading up to his death almost three years ago, a counselor that I was seeing said, “It sounds like now’s the time to discuss any unfinished business with your dad.” I told him that I couldn’t think of a thing that was unfinished between Dad and me.

I was fibbing a little, because for several years I had been wanting to ask my father – whose health was on the decline in the years before he died – at what point he first began to contemplate his own passing. It was important to me because I had begun to think about my own mortality and was curious about when such thoughts normally set in.

But I never did ask Dad the question. That was the sort of topic that was uncomfortable in our family and I did not want to ask a question that might be misconstrued as peculiar in some way.


When I was a teenager, I became preoccupied with the far-fetched and unspoken notion that I would pass away at age 24, the same age as James Dean. Once I made it to age 24 and beyond, I had to assume I would most likely have a normal life span. If so, I have quite a few more years to navigate.

Still, all of the aging tropes are beginning to apply to me: realization of physical limitations; thinning and greying hair; occasional soreness and aches; discussing medications and ailments with my peers and colleagues; frustration with technology; the realization that younger people may be a tad condescending (partially due to my frustration with technology). I even occasionally have to deal with the death of a friend my age or younger.


I set conditions for myself when I purchased my first house a few years ago. I vowed that I would not own a house unless I was committed to keeping it up myself. I would take care of my own yard and I would clean my own house. I would take care of my own maintenance problems and, if there was anything I couldn’t take care of, I would hire a professional.

Today, I hired a new guy to take care of the yard; he was finishing up just as the woman who cleans my house was wrapping up her monthly cleaning.

“I had you figured all wrong,” said the yard guy when we met. “I thought you’d be young.”

Then he looked around the street. “But it makes sense now; most of the people who live around here are old.”


Looking at my current life, it’s sometimes hard to find the person I used to be. As time goes on, values and needs change. Things that were routine become more like luxuries, or slip away completely. Things that used to be important slip to the back burner and things I never thought about become front and center.

In the past – and for decades – I was the one who kept up with all of the current movies and theatrical events. I attended at least one and often two or more movies in an actual movie theatre each week and would often watch a rental on the nights I didn’t go out.

Now I only seem to see movies in a theatre during the annual film festival that I still attend religiously. I have a hard time carving out a couple of hours to watch something at home. My viewing habits are now mostly half hour – and mostly informational – shows that I don’t have to pay much attention to as I go about my tasks.

The day of the Academy Awards broadcast used to be almost like a holiday for me. I would invite people over and watch the red carpet and the interminable awards show and we would make snarky commentary. I haven’t watched an Oscar broadcast in years.

I used to always have at least a couple of books I was reading at any given time. They would usually be something fictional – a novel or collection of short stories – and something non-fiction – biography or history or issue-oriented volumes. Any non-work-related reading tends to be magazines now. I’ll read an article or two if I have a spare few minutes or before I go to sleep, but it’s sometimes hard to even work that amount of reading into the schedule.

I did spend the last six months of 2018 reading the first volume of Proust’s 3-volume Remembrance of Things Past. It was hard to find the time to read such a contemplative and obsessive novel but it was with a sense of accomplishment that I finished volume one a few days before Christmas. Volume two is sitting on my nightstand, but I haven’t opened it yet.

I was active at a local gym for a few years, averaging a 90-minute workout five times a week. When I stopped the workout regimen, I started hiking and was dedicated to frequent moderate hikes in various locations for a while.

Now, I try to figure out how I found the time to do that then. I have often said that one always seems to find the time for what one really wants to do, so maybe I don’t really want to re-launch a rigorous exercise regimen. But I know I need to.

A more recent new interest is food culture and foodways. As a dues-paying member of Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org), I have learned a lot from their symposia, the magazine and podcasts of Gravy, and the dinners in Florence that have served to raise awareness of the organization and of southern chefs. It has helped me to connect and understand more about where I come from and what shaped me and my people. I look forward to trips to local farmers’ markets wherever I may be.

It does occur to me that my interest in food culture may not be the best response to my lack of time to exercise regularly.

I had always heard that a man’s politics become more conservative as he ages. I am pleased to report that I am an exception to that observation — and I’m sure I’m not alone. I am more progressive now than at any point in my life and, if things in our country don’t change soon, I may be on the way to becoming a full-blown radical. I am often reminded of visionary philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and his observation that “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”


There was a time when I loved my transient career in professional theatre and found the idea of retirement unimaginable. Lately, the prospect of retirement is a sweet one. I love to travel, and plan to continue to travel as much as possible, but I’m equally drawn to the prospect of staying at home. I am fortunate to be a person who never really gets bored or lonely. I like to be alone with my thoughts and my stuff and I think that will continue into my eventual – and, hopefully, inevitable – retirement.

For now, I try to grab as many moments of contemplation and observation as possible. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life by coffee spoons. I intend to measure out mine by the views outside my own window – or any window I happen to be near at the time.

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Raiding Big Orange Country

Knoxville. Tennessee. The Tennessee River officially begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in Knoxville, Tennessee. It meanders past Knoxville down to Chattanooga, crosses into northeast Alabama, and makes a big curve through north Alabama’s “Tennessee Valley” – passing a couple of miles south of my house in Huntsville – before sweeping northwest through the Shoals, crossing the Natchez Trace, slipping out of Alabama, and passing back into Tennessee and then Kentucky, where it empties into the Mississippi at Paducah.

The Tennessee River is visible from my hotel room in downtown Knoxville on this, my first extended stay in the town.

In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate and Alabama was still playing half of its home football games in Birmingham’s hallowed Legion Field, the Alabama–Tennessee game was still considered an important game. However, these were the days of Coach Bear Bryant at his peak and Alabama won each Tennessee game from 1971 through 1981.

I didn’t hold any particular animosity against the Tennessee Volunteers back then; they were just an annual rival that we always beat. However, at one of those Birmingham games, while leaving the stadium after another dominating Alabama victory, a rowdy gang of Tennessee fans began to curse and hurl oranges at anyone wearing crimson. These were the days when stadium security was less restrictive about what patrons might bring through the gates.

After being hit hard by a couple of oranges and narrowly dodging a couple more aimed at my head, I decided to never attend another Tennessee game and was confirmed in my opinion that the Tennessee shade of orange is the ugliest shade of orange. And I lost what little respect I might have had for the fans of University of Tennessee football. To quote the great scribe, Rick Bragg: “‘Rocky Top’, mah ass.”

That may be the reason that I have “swung by” Knoxville on occasion on the way to other places but have never entertained a desire to stop. When Knoxville was the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, I found the idea depressing, even when I heard that, by late-20th century World’s Fair standards, Knoxville’s did okay (I read somewhere that it made a $57 profit).

I don’t hold a grudge against the University of Tennessee; the bruises are long-gone. But I do have a very good memory …


So here I am in Knoxville, attending the 70th Anniversary edition of Southeastern Theatre Conference (www.setc.org). I have attended most SETC conventions since 1983, but this is my first time in Knoxville and I’m trying to reconcile myself to giving the place a fair shake. From my hotel window, I see the Tennessee River and the hazy visage of the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance to the east.

The Sunsphere, a relic of that long-ago World’s Fair, is just a block down the way, hovering over the Knoxville Convention Center where I am spending a good part of each day. Over there a ways is Neyland Stadium and the Tennessee campus.

The rain that has plagued us for weeks now is back on my second full day in Knoxville, but there’s a promise of better weather ahead before a cold front and more rains move in on Sunday – just in time for my drive home.

Downtown Knoxville is below me and there is some good architecture I want to check out and maybe photograph if it ever stops raining. Biblical rains have plagued most of the South for a couple of weeks now and some Knox County schools have been closed most of this week due to flooding.

Most of my convention activities are related to my position on the editorial board of Southern Theatre, the organization’s quarterly magazine. However, I managed to see the exhibits and vendors in the exhibition hall and to catch some career-related workshops on acting and directing. A keynote speaker was Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, playwright, whom I met while she was a young playwright and I was on staff at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Wilder’s very personal and evocative presentation should be inspiration for anyone pursuing a career in the arts.

I was already familiar with Wilder’s impressive story-telling abilities and it was delightful to hear her account of her very theatrical and tongue-in-cheek debutante presentation in Mobile when she was presented to “society’ by the inimitable renaissance man Eugene Walter – one of my favorite characters. Wilder noted that most in the audience would have no idea who Eugene Walter was, but for those of us familiar with the man and his legend, she handed out another gem to add to the treasure trove.

My favorite takeaway from Wilder’s presentation was the advice to a young writer from her friend, playwright Larry Kramer, who said, “Writing is like throwing up; you’ve got to get it out now and clean it up later.”


After hours of editorial board meetings, keynote speakers, and workshops, the rain subsided by Friday evening and I had time to dash to the downtown Market Square for Knoxville’s monthly “First Friday” event. There was lots of bustle and live music along Market Square and Gay Street but I didn’t find many galleries, even after I asked for directions.

One gallery that I found, however, had a washboard band singing Leonard Cohen’s greatest earworm, “Hallelujah,” as I walked in and tried to gracefully get past the band for the art. At another gallery, reached by a very narrow stairway, I found an interesting art exhibit with a “Human Trafficking” theme. The art itself was intriguing and evocative, but I’m afraid I would not have picked up on a human trafficking theme without the artist statements and explanations which accompanied the art.

My greatest discovery of the night came in the form of a tip about the Oliver Hotel on Market Square (www.theoliverhotel.com). The Oliver is a central city boutique hotel in a 19th Century building that once served as a bakery. The hotel opened in 2011 but is a throwback to the days of traveling salesmen, train travel, and downtown hotels with all of the amenities. It exudes authentic character with two anchor restaurants. The upscale Oliver Royale is a cozy fine dining restaurant with an ambitious and local trending menu. My confit leg of rabbit was stunningly tender and juicy in a brothy mix of endive, bacon, Yukon gold mousseline, asparagus, cauliflower, and kale. The more casual Tupelo Honey Café anchors the other end of the Oliver.

If you walk past the hotel, there is a dark alley, worthy of fiction, with a red light next to an unmarked door with no exterior knob. If you are lucky enough to get the door opened, you are escorted to the line at the entrance to the Peter Kern Library, a cozy speakeasy that seats forty at a time. Once in the Library, with a fireplace and well-stocked bookshelves, you are handed a vintage hardcover book that contains a carefully curated menu of evocatively titled cocktails such as the Holly Golightly, Aeschylus, Brown Derby, Rosaline, and Vieux Carre. The Peter Kern Library is a convivial adventure that is well worth the wait required.

I would almost come back to Knoxville just to more fully experience the Oliver Hotel.

Since this is the weekend before Mardi Gras, Market Square is host to an event called “Mardi Growl,” a Mardi Gras-inspired parade and pet party to benefit the local Young Williams Animal Center. As I headed to Market Square for lunch, the pet party was still going strong with revelry-minded dogs dominating the area and tables outside the various eateries.

Just down and across the Square from the Oliver is The Tomato Head (www.thetomatohead.com), a casual and trendy dining spot that operates from early morning to late at night. “Food Gotta Cook / Don’t Come Out of a Can!” is the restaurant’s mantra displayed on the walls. The menu is full of vegetarian and vegan friendly options with a generous offering of meat dishes or add-ons. Pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and sides are served to a clientele which leans local and young. A pastry shelf is full of enticing cookies, cupcakes, and other sweet treats. My first meal at The Tomato Head was a business dinner but the menu was intriguing enough that I ate there twice.


A long-standing tradition of SETC is a closing night dinner with friends – the “Gang of Four,” I call them – Patty and Kitty, friends from graduate school, and Janet and Russell, whom I met at New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. Patty and Kitty are now in Florida and Janet and Russell are in South Carolina. Close colleagues in the past, we only see each other once a year at SETC these days.

As the designated “foodie” of the group, it usually falls to me to choose the restaurant for these annual events. Since none of us had any experience with Knoxville, I was intimidated by this year’s challenge. After much research and menu-hopping, I settled on Café 4 in Market Square (www.4marketsquare.com/cafe4). Historically, Café 4 made its mark in Market Square before the area had developed its current cachet; it’s the OG, it seems, of Market Square eateries. Its dedication to a locally sourced menu is another appeal, as is its location in a landmark structure.

By the time we walked to Café 4, Tennessee had just defeated Kentucky handily in basketball and happy orange-wearing fans were abundant everywhere.

Although we had a reservation, there was a somewhat long wait to be seated. Café 4’s charm is immediately evident in ambience and character. Everybody at our table ordered Old Fashioneds and all but one ordered a steak. Everybody was pleased with the entrée and Russell followed his long-standing tradition of ordering a Brandy Alexander for everyone for dessert. Russell is a true gentleman and a Brandy Alexander is such a dignified ending to a lovely annual tradition among friends.

As I pack to leave on Sunday morning, the much anticipated rain is falling and temperatures will be dropping throughout the day. Knoxville has been a pleasant surprise, with friendly, helpful people and some interesting things to do. On my way out of town, I may swing by the University of Tennessee campus just to say I’ve seen it and to put old gripes to rest.

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.


The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.


At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.


The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.


We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

Remembering Highland Avenue

 

Independent Presbyterian Church

Highland Avenue meanders along the north slopes of Birmingham’s Red Mountain for a couple of basically east-west miles. It starts at the business end of the Five Points South community and ends at Clairmont Avenue in Lakeview, beside the Highland Park Golf Course.

The area around Highland has always struck me as the epitome of a great urban neighborhood. By the 1960s, many of Highland’s grand houses had been split up into apartments, but now, many of those houses have given way to new development while others have mostly returned back to single family dwellings or event venues. What once were trolley tracks are now well-planted raised beds which run down the middle of most of the drive.

Donnelly House

Highland Avenue was conceived as a main thoroughfare through real estate development in the town of Highland before the town was annexed into the city of Birmingham.

Nowadays, the area is a mix of commercial and residential with high-rise apartments and condominiums among the houses and townhouses. It’s a surprisingly charming architectural mix with late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture co-existing comfortably with contemporary high-rises. Three cozy parks – for relaxing, playing with dogs, or shooting baskets – provide respite among the bustle of the avenue’s traffic. The street has a casually elegant feel – a mixture of contemporary with doses of a more elegant time past; it’s still easy to imagine trolleys and carriages moving along the avenue, and people leaving their calling cards at houses during Sunday strolls.

Avalon condominiums

The last time I lived in Birmingham, my apartment was up Red Mountain from Highland and the area was a regular walking spot for me. The neighborhood always relaxes and inspires me with occasional glimpses north to the Birmingham skyline, a sighting of Vulcan to the southwest, or the grand houses of the Redmont neighborhood along the Red Mountain crest.  If I am anywhere near the area, I will usually take a quick detour over to Highland rather than a more direct route.

A long-gone Birmingham-based chain of cafeterias called Britling had locations throughout the city, but I always thought the Highland Avenue location, which was known as “Britling on the Highlands,” somehow stood apart from the rest. That “on the Highlands” tag gave it a sense of elegance to my young mind.

Temple Beth-El

Temple Emanu-El

South Highland Presbyterian Church

Impressive houses of worship are scattered along Highland Avenue. Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El are just a couple of blocks apart. South Highland Presbyterian Church is located near the west end of the avenue and the neo-Gothic Independent Presbyterian Church is situated near the east end, across from the golf course. The two Presbyterian churches started out as South Highlands; Independent formed after a doctrinal split in the early 1900s.

Chef Frank Stitt’s Bottega and Bottega Café, his Italian-inspired dining spots, are housed right on the avenue in the Bottega Favorita building, a limestone charmer with visual as well as culinary distinction. Other notable restaurants along the avenue are Galley & Garden in the old Merritt House, and Hot & Hot Fish Club, half a block down and behind Highland Plaza, an art deco shopping center anchored by locally-owned Western Supermarket. Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill, 2018’s James Beard Award winner for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, is located just a couple of blocks from Highland Avenue, in Five Points South.

Bottega Favorita

I was saddened to learn recently that Western Supermarkets are going out of business after over seventy years. The Western on Highland was the closest grocery store to my Southside apartment in the ‘90s – and the only grocery store near downtown at the time. I frequently stopped there on the way home from work and often walked down early on Sunday mornings to pick up the Birmingham News and New York Times. The closing of the supermarket coincides with the purchase of Highland Plaza by a developer, with rumors of a major overhaul and redevelopment of the site in the works – another beloved landmark that will soon bite the dust.

Galley & Garden restaurant with Vesta apartment construction behind

Traveling past the Highland Plaza toward Temple Beth-El used to be one of my favorite quick glimpses of the Vulcan statue overlooking the city. That particular vista is gone forever with the construction of the high-rise Vesta apartment complex now obscuring the view.

The former Town and Gown Theatre is nestled just off Caldwell Park, which also used to be the front yard of sorts for John Carroll High School. John Carroll has moved to the suburbs, making way for more house construction, and Town and Gown has morphed into Virginia Samford Theatre, still a destination in the city for theatre-goers. I still have fond memories of auditioning for a juvenile role in a Steve McQueen movie at the old Town and Gown in the 1960s.

Highland Plaza

Despite considerable changes – and more to come – Highland Avenue retains its character and still feels like a neighborhood, a calm and shady retreat from the city center only a couple of miles away. It’s still one of my favorite streets to drive. 

Rethinking Rocket City

Huntsville – the north Alabama town where I live – was just named to the New York Times annual list of “52 Places (in the world!) to Go in 2019.” It’s an honor for a place. Montgomery made the list last year and Birmingham was on the 2017 list so Alabama has been well represented.

The incentive for Huntsville’s inclusion this year is the 50th Anniversary of the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Planned local celebrations will honor Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s integral role in the 1950s and 1960s activities that ultimately landed the first humans on the moon. The moon landing was the fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge, motivated by the Cold War and the American space race with the Soviets. It was spearheaded by Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers who were brought to the United States and to Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center after working with the Nazi regime during World War II.

The New York Times designation is just one of the many “best places to …” or “must see” lists on which Huntsville frequently lands. Huntsville locals are all atwitter with the projection that Huntsville might become the largest city in Alabama in the 2020 census. I get smug glares when I try to point out that the population within the city limits of Huntsville might indeed surpass that within the city limits of Birmingham in the next few years, but that the metropolitan population of the Birmingham region will still be three or four times that of Huntsville and its satellites.

I have gotten used to smug glares since I moved to Huntsville.


Not that it matters, but readers have asked me why I don’t write much about the town where I live. After sixteen years in residence, I am still ambivalent about the place. My house in southeast Huntsville is indisputably my “home”; it’s the place where I keep my stuff and where I feel at peace – it’s my haven. But the city where my home is located is a place where I still feel like a visitor, and sometimes an interloper. I’m a quasi-Luddite in a town full of military types, federal employees, IT workers, engineers, and rocket scientists. I’m not really at home in Huntsville’s STEM paradise; I find it lacks STEAM (which, for the uninitiated, is STEM with an Art component).

My lack of enthusiasm probably dates back to my days in elementary school. When I was in fifth grade, in Birmingham, we took a field trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. In those days, we frequently watched space launches on black and white classroom televisions. As a first grader, I was enthralled watching the coverage of John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbits. I was excited to contemplate going to Huntsville, the place where so much of the technology for the space race had been formulated – the place where the astronauts trained. When my fifth-grade field trip occurred, the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy had not yet happened and the 1969 moon landing seemed to be in the distant future.

Most importantly, perhaps, these were the days before there was a U.S. Space and Rocket Center so Marshall was all business – with no bells and whistles – for a school field trip.

As I recall, after a long bus ride, we were herded into a lecture hall on the Marshall Space Flight Center campus where we listened to rocket scientists and looked at projected charts. After the lectures, we got back onto our bus and had a picnic at what I remember as a depressing public park near the Arsenal. That park is still there; it doesn’t look like it’s changed at all. (I shudder whenever I pass it.)

Then we had a long bus ride back to Birmingham.

I have met people all over the country who tell me that childhood trips to Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center or Space Camp (www.rocketcenter.com) changed their lives, turning them into space and science enthusiasts. I’ve no doubt that my class experience would have been much different with the more exciting and interactive experience of the Space and Rocket Center, but, for me, the trip to Huntsville was the worst field trip ever.

My second visit to Huntsville was years later when I was stage managing a touring theatre production that played an arts festival in Huntsville’s Big Spring Park. It wasn’t a great tour stop. Some of the locals complained that the production – a salute to the music of Stephen Sondheim – was too “adult” for the family crowds at the festival. There was some sort of power glitch during an afternoon show that caused the performance to grind to a halt for a few minutes.

Despite these early experiences, when what seemed to be a promising opportunity to take a teaching job in Huntsville arose many years later, I accepted the offer and hoped for the best.


Huntsville had less than 15,000 inhabitants in 1940, prior to the establishment of Redstone Arsenal during World War II. At that time, it was the “watercress capital of the world” and a place focused on cotton and textile production. The remnants of some of the local mills and the “company town” communities which surrounded them are still around and repurposed today.

When I moved to Huntsville in 2002, I was thrilled by how many cotton fields could still be found within the city limits. In the years since, I have seen most of those disappear and be converted to more prosaic uses. Still, one doesn’t need to travel far to find rich agricultural land and scenic beauty. One of my favorite vistas within the city limits is what remains of Jones Valley Farm, a once expansive family farm that has mostly been sold off for residential and retail development. Enough of the farm land remains to capture the beauty of what that valley area nestled among three mountains must have been long before I came to live here.

With the arrival of the “Space Age” came the arrival of space age architectural flourishes and, while I am a fan of mid-century modern architecture, I never found my comfort zone with some of its incarnations, such as the Googie branch of futurism which took off with the advent of the space age (think “The Jetsons”). Unfortunately, Huntsville’s growth spurt was simultaneous with that style so you have the anomaly of an unfortunate modernist county courthouse sitting in the middle of a still charming and historic town square; a foreboding city hall looming over the big spring that spurred the area’s earliest settlement; and First Baptist Huntsville’s rocket-inspired carillon and trippy “Cosmic Jesus” mosaic façade. These remnants of the early days of space technology in the area are jarring amidst the vernacular structures that still provide local character.

The local visual arts scene is centered in Lowe Mill (www.lowemill.net), a converted cotton mill housing dozens of artist studios. It’s a great idea in principle, but it becomes exhausting to separate the wheat from the chaff in the expansive space.

Incidentally, living near the Arsenal, one tries to get comfortable with random large booms and the sounds of explosions – some of which are house-shaking – with military helicopters regularly flying overhead. I’m not quite there yet.


I am constantly in search of my local “comfort zones,” and I have found several. Here are a few:

I was pleased recently with the opening of a sharp new gallery space – Burnwater Gallery – nestled far away from the hustle of Lowe Mill (www.burnwatergallery.com). Not far from Burnwater, Holtz Leather Co. is a family business specializing in fine leather goods crafted on-site (www.holtzleather.com).

I find culinary community at 1892 East Restaurant and Tavern (www.1892east.com) in Huntsville’s 5 Points neighborhood. 1892’s originally more adventurous menu has settled into routine in its near decade of existence and I suspect that’s to please its local clientele. The menu is still based on a farm to table philosophy and it’s a comfortable place to unwind, with a charming and knowledgeable wait staff. The Walt Whitman quote, “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough,” inscribed above the bar, seems to capture the spirit of the restaurant, which I have taken to describing as my own personal “Cheers.”

Anaheim Chili (www.anaheimchili.net) in Jones Valley is a casual place specializing in about a dozen chilis, other hearty menu items, and a variety of local brews on tap. The regular tastings at the local Wine Rack (www.winerackhsv.com), a neighborhood wine shop with a quirky assortment of regulars, provide another setting for lively community interaction. There are also some good food trucks to be found scattered throughout Huntsville. My favorite is Peppered Pig (www.pepperedpig.net).

I am currently excited about Purveyor (www.purveyorhuntsville.com), a new local restaurant in The Avenue multi-use development downtown. Based on word-of-mouth, I was worried that the place might be a little too pretentious and “precious” for my taste. Purveyor is a little expensive, but after dining there recently, I am a convert. Chef Rene Boyzo is providing an adventurous and ambitious menu, setting an exciting and desperately needed new bar for Huntsville dining.


In the middle of writing this essay, my mother, my nephew, and I were standing outside late on a cold and cloudless Sunday night in Birmingham watching the Super Blood Wolf Moon eclipse. The night was calm and peaceful and I re-encountered that awe that I had as a first-grader, that must have inspired the moon mission and its earliest explorations – that still inspires so many residents of the Huntsville area today.

A few days later, it was announced that a new rocket engine facility locating to Huntsville is negotiating with NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center to re-purpose and use the Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand that has stood abandoned since the days of the Saturn V rocket and development of the space shuttle. It’s an imposing structure, still one of the tallest buildings in the state, and visible from many parts of Huntsville – standing isolated and alone in the distance. I have often thought it was a shame that it’s no longer utilized. Now, perhaps, it will be.

Since moving to Huntsville in 2002, I have had the vague impression that the local aerospace concerns were constantly trying to justify their continued existence amid constant changes in the political climate and shifting allegiances to space exploration and its implications. With recent developments, there may be justifiable life in the old girl yet.

I have no intention or desire to remain in Huntsville past retirement, but my interest in the place and its future has been newly titillated. I plan to keep watching in the future … and from a distance. 

 

Fear Not

My annual getaway to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear just ended and I am here to report to all of the people that harbored trepidations about the resort’s recent overhaul that I think it will be okay for them to go back; they’ll be fine with the changes.

A Grand Hotel has been located on the “point” of Point Clear on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore since 1847. When I visited in December 2017, much of the facility was a construction site and I was told that “every inch” of the facility was being touched by a massive renovation. I was eager to see what the final results looked like and am happy to report that they are finished and the place looks great.

Driving through the gate, one is not aware of all of the work that has been done. The grounds are immaculate as always, the live oaks are decked out for the holidays, and what blooms this time of year is blooming in profusion. My recently planted camellia bush did not have a single bloom this year so I was a tad jealous of the profusion of camellias all around the lagoon.

Most of the renovation work is interior and the result is a fresher, lighter, and more open effect with calm shades of blues and greys predominant.

The most visible change in the main building’s lobby area is a new casual food option, Local Market, in the space once occupied by the gift shop. A gift shop boutique, Oak and Azalea, is now located off the Grand Hall. Bayside Grill and Southern Roots are new dining options flanking the Grand Hall, as is the new 1847 Bar. The Grand Hall itself is now the setting for an afternoon High Tea in addition to breakfast and Sunday brunch. On one afternoon as I passed through, groups of hat-wearing ladies were enjoying the High Tea service. Gone is the 4:00 p.m. community tea that was a beloved tradition in years past, but the warm aromas of a wood fire from the fireplaces still waft through the main building on a crisp December evening. 

Old traditions remain. The Sunset Bell still rings thirty minutes before sunset, summoning guests to gather for the usually spectacular Mobile Bay sunset. The historical salute to the Grand’s military history is still an afternoon tradition, culminating in the firing of the Civil War-era cannon on the edge of the Bay.

One of the first things I checked was if Bucky’s Lounge was still there. Bucky’s, a gathering spot overlooking the Bay, is named to honor Bucky Miller, a mainstay who worked at the resort in many capacities over sixty years from the 1940s to his death in 2002. A life-size statue of Bucky, right hand outstretched to greet a guest, has stood outside the lounge for years. A subtle new touch is Bucky’s image smiling on the guests from one of the lounge walls.  More patio firepits have expanded Bucky’s out and closer to the Bay.

I do have to register one gripe about the changes: One of the stalwarts of the Grand’s appetizer offerings has always been an order of crab claws. For some reason, crab claws are missing from the current menus. I asked one of the wait staff for confirmation that the popular appetizer is, indeed, gone from all menus. It seems like a slight omission, but it is also something that is so simple and popular that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get rid of it. If I have a complaint to register about the updates, it’s simply that I want crab claws back on the menu. 

Throughout the various buildings of the resort, the fresher theme persists. In my favorite room with a spectacular view in the Spa building, the footprint is the same but the furnishings are somehow more functional and comfortable. In my room, I spent a lot of time lounging on a corner chaise that was a perfect spot for reading, writing, and napping.

The Grand is still a great spot to relax, both indoors and out. Any worries about the changes should be calmed by how well those changes were handled. I hope to be going there for holiday retreats for years to come. 

“The Mad Potter of Biloxi”

George E. Ohr ceramic

I first saw photos of architect Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house in the 1970s and filed him away as an architect I wanted to keep tracking. Gehry and his wife bought a two-story pink Dutch Colonial bungalow on a conventional neighborhood street and the rule-bending architect began his process of revision and deconstruction. Parts of the interior were stripped down to the studs and exterior additions incorporated materials such as plywood, corrugated steel, glass cubes, aluminum siding, and chain-link fencing. To be honest, I didn’t think the end product was very appealing to look at but I was drawn to the audacity of it and how Gehry thumbed his nose at convention – and the neighbors – and created a functioning house that still remains a home for the Gehry family forty years later.

Keeping track of Gehry was a smart move as his architecture flourished internationally with hallmark commissions like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

“The Pods”: Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art; Biloxi, Mississippi

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, Mississippi, is a Gehry design that was years in the making (www.georgeohr.org). Showcasing the work of potter George E. Ohr (1857-1918), the self-proclaimed “mad potter of Biloxi,” the museum campus was well-underway when I stopped to photograph the construction site in August 2005. The “O’Keefe” of the museum’s title refers to a prominent Biloxi family that was key to the project being built. Two weeks after I photographed the construction, Hurricane Katrina dumped a casino barge on the site and construction of the museum facility was delayed until 2008.  The “pods,” a grouping of metallic structures primarily housing Ohr’s work, finally opened in 2014.

I drove over to Biloxi in 2010 when the first three buildings of the campus were newly opened. Gehry’s design plotted the five structures to leave intact the live oaks already established on the site. A brick courtyard centers the facility. The east side of the campus includes three structures – a welcome center with gift shop and two intimate galleries. The gift shop features a generous selection of pottery and ceramics by artists from within the region. The Beau Rivage Casino Gallery of African American Art includes changing shows focused on African American artists. The IP Casino Resort and Spa Exhibitions Gallery houses temporary shows.

View of “Transcendent Coincidences for Existence” by Ron Bechet; Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

On a recent visit in December 2018, the Beau Rivage Gallery featured the show, “Transcendent Coincidences for Existence.” by New Orleans artist Ron Bechet. Bechet’s large charcoal works explore interconnected roots, trunks, and botanical decay – knotted and matted and decomposing.

A small cove of the Beau Rivage Gallery houses a permanent exhibit exploring the Ohr legacy, “I Am the Potter Who Was.” Ohr spent much of his life courting scandal and controversy and his ceramics did not sell very well in his lifetime. His ceramics’ queer twisted shapes with random pinches and extreme glazes did not find a significant market while he was alive but he is now considered a modernist pioneer in ceramics.

George E. Ohr ceramics at Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

The IP Casino Gallery was showing a juried exhibit, “Echoes of Ohr,” a survey of contemporary ceramic arts with nods to the Ohr legacy.

The west side of the campus features the most audacious architecture – three metallic pods which house some of the Ohr collection and a multi-story City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics with working artist studios and kilns. The Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center anchors the north end of the museum campus. The Pleasant Reed house was a preserved 19th century Biloxi house that had served as the home of Pleasant Reed and his family in the African American community of Biloxi. The house and its furnishings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and a replica of the house was built to replace it. Currently, the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center features an exhibit, “City Within a City: African American Culture in Biloxi,” documenting Biloxi’s vibrant and self-sufficient African American community after World War II.

As much as I appreciate George Ohr and the offerings within the museum, the main draw of the Ohr-O’Keefe for me is still the distinctive Frank Gehry architecture along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I keep returning to see how these quirky buildings continue to dance with the landscape of live oaks looking out to the Gulf and the pine forests of the barrier islands. It’s a pleasure to come across the humble museum campus amid the high-rise casinos that dominate the Beach Boulevard drive. I continue to be surprised at how much of the property along the stretch of highway remains vacant since the hurricane. I recall the grand residences that once lined this scenic drive.

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art; Biloxi, Mississippi

The Ohr-O’Keefe is a gem on many levels and ought to be a destination for lovers of art and architecture. It seems that the facility has been under-supported and under-appreciated in its community. George Ohr famously said, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come.” Let’s hope that his namesake museum will not have to wait so long to come into its own well-deserved prominence.