Author Archives: gedwardjourney

About gedwardjourney

Edward Journey is a writer, theatre artist, and retired university professor. "Professional Southerner" is an online journal focusing on topics -- Southern and other -- that stoke Edward's interests. Edward may be reached at likatrip@yahoo.com.

Books for the New Year

Two of my recent book reviews have just been published on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website (www.writersforum.org). Fight Songs by Ed Cotton is particularly appropriate on the day of the NCAA college football championship game.

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/01/10/fight-songs

Hank Lazer’s field recordings   of mind    in morning is a contemplative book of poems which asserts that “living now / must be / elegiac.” The book is accompanied by music by Holland Hopson.

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/01/10/field-recordings-of-mind-in-morning

 

 

Of Bricks and Stones

Ensley High School

I got a brick for Christmas. And it was one of the more meaningful presents I received.

It was a brick from the ruins of the demolished Ensley High School, my father’s alma mater, on Birmingham’s west side. The building held its first classes in 1910 and closed at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year. A fire gutted the abandoned school in 2018 and its final demolition began in 2021 to make way for a multi-use complex.

Grover Journey graduated from Ensley in the early 1950s and was student body vice-president in his senior year. Mother and I always marveled that, wherever we might be, Dad could sniff out an Ensley grad from his era.

Listening to Dad’s stories, I always had the impression that their bitterest high school rivals were in Woodlawn, across the city on the east side of town. The Woodlawn community is having a resurgence these days and Ensley, which went into a rapid decline when its steel mills closed in the ‘70s, is now looking forward to its own renaissance. It has a long way to go. Dad’s boyhood home is one of only two houses still standing on the once crowded block where he grew up and met Mother.

Along with the pink-ish tan exterior brick, my special Christmas gift included a well-worn and annotated copy of Shakespeare’s King Henry the Eighth from what was once a voluminous Ensley High School Library. The card in the book has signatures of withdrawals dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. A student named Charles Ingram checked it out seven times in succession in 1956. My mother also received a brick and a Shakespeare volume and I now worry about the fate of all of the other books from the EHS Library. I’m hoping there is an effort to preserve them.

That precious Ensley High School brick now joins another brick from a long-gone Birmingham landmark. The Tutwiler Hotel, opened in 1914 on Twentieth Street downtown, was the grande dame of the city’s hotels until it closed for good in 1972. It was imploded in 1974. The implosion did not go quite as planned; one part of the building crumbled to the ground – I remember watching it live on television – and another part stayed up and was eventually demolished by more conventional methods.

Not long after the demolition, I made my way through an opening in the fence at the construction site and grabbed a brick as a keepsake of the place. It has now been with me spanning six decades and many moves. In fact, I am looking at it as I write these words.

Tutwiler Hotel

The Ridgely Apartments, near Linn Park and a few blocks from the old Tutwiler, were refurbished and re-christened as the “Tutwiler Hotel” in 1986. The Ridgely building was actually built a year earlier than the original Tutwiler with the involvement of some of the same developers and architects, so I guess it’s a fair enough trade-off if the original had to go. I’ve stayed there a few times, but when somebody tells me they are staying at “the Tutwiler,” I am quick to point out that there was once a grander, “real and original,” Tutwiler.


Preservation efforts in Birmingham have never fully recovered from the loss of Birmingham’s magnificent Terminal Station in a 1969 demolition. The building’s elaborate Beaux-Arts design featured two 130-foot towers and an elaborate dome covered in tile and a decorative glass skylight. Its loss opened eyes, spurred other cities’ preservation efforts, and made Birmingham preservationists more tenacious.

Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute (SR), an affiliate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), has dealt a blow to Birmingham preservation with its acquisition of and plans to destroy Quinlan Castle, a medieval-inspired, stone-clad former apartment building on a rise in Birmingham’s Southside, built in 1927.

SR’s CEO, in a sketchy, badly-composed justification of the institute’s decision to demolish the building, describes the proposed bland replacement building as a “castle for the 21st Century.” He also has the bad taste and gall to cite the collapse of the Surfside condo in Miami as a motivating factor for the decision to destroy the castle.

Nobody is fooled. It is clear to anyone who knows that building that it could never have become a research laboratory and I’m not sure why Southern Research has to use that ruse as a justification for the demolition of a historic element of local urban architecture. UAB and Southern Research have the clout to do about anything they care to on the Southside. UAB already blighted part of the Southside skyline by erecting an eyesore – an oversized parking shed that they refer to as the football team’s “practice field.” So I think the big question for many of us now is why the SR expansion has to happen on the Quinlan Castle site.

In 1990, when I was moving to Birmingham to take a theatre job, my apartment hunting began with Quinlan Castle. It was already pretty run-down, and closed a few years later, but the charm of the building was intact and it had mighty potential. The small apartments, which would have been quite snazzy in the Roaring ‘20s, opened onto a central courtyard. There were even cannons in a couple of the turrets along the crenellated roof. It would have been perfect for me as a college student, but I had moved on and opted for a more modern abode up the mountain. Still, the castle gave me a smile each day as I passed it on the way to work.

I went to Quinlan Castle around Christmas, just to see if it is still standing. As of a couple of weeks ago, it’s still there. A part of me hopes that cooler heads have prevailed and that SR is considering other sites for its “21st Century castle” of innocuous sterile labs.

If you’re in the area, go over to 2030 9th Avenue South and pay homage to another endangered part of Birmingham architectural history while it still stands.

Quinlan Castle, December 2021

The Poetry of Charlie Brown

The Grand Hotel – December 2021

Point Clear, Alabama. I drive down I-65 this week, renewing my annual holiday trip to the Grand Hotel, the venerable resort at Point Clear, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. It’s my first attempt at a vacation in two years.

On the drive down, somebody on the radio plays an audio clip from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the first and best of the animated specials based on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon strip. You know the scene: Charlie Brown, in frustration, asks if anybody knows the true meaning of Christmas. This is Linus’s cue to step into the spotlight and recite the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.

What strikes me in this listening is the simple, forthright performance of the script by the child actors. Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) asks, “Doesn’t anybody / know / what Christmas / is all about?” and the line has a haiku-like cadence that captures the wistful innocence of youth.


At Point Clear, the massive live oaks seem untouched by pandemic and recent hurricanes; Christmas lights around the lagoon are as profusely tasteful and satisfying as ever and the Civil War cannon is fired in the distance, maintaining a daily ritual. Ancient branches of live oaks drape over the pathways, belighted as natural arches for the season.

This trip – after a longer than usual absence and the factors that delayed it – is more reflective. A CD of George Winston’s classic album, December, found under a stack of CDs in the car, becomes the soundtrack for the trip. In the room, I stream podcasts by my friend, Lily Miceli, who hosts “InBetween the Music” for Wisconsin Public Radio. She recently shared two Christmas-themed programs:

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Dickens-ee75

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Christmas-d31d

Libby Rich, who ran an amazing garden shop called Plant Odyssey in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood for years, now shares her expertise on Libbyrich’s Blog https://libbyrich.wordpress.com/2021/12/13/a-roll-of-quarters.  My gardening inspiration growing up was my Granddaddy Harbison, but it was in Libby’s Lakeview shop that I honed my knowledge of plants and gardens. She is a formidable presence with a kind heart and voluminous knowledge of growing things. Libby’s Christmas-themed essay, “A Roll of Quarters,” is about a customer who always bought his Christmas poinsettias at Plant Odyssey, leaving a roll of quarters for her to treat her staff. My dad collected coins, mainly quarters, in his retirement and often gifted special people with a roll. Libby’s post, read on my balcony overlooking the lagoon and Mobile Bay beyond, is especially poignant in this season of remembrance.

Along for the ride, also, are a well-worn copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a brand-new copy of the first novel by artist Julyan Davis, whom I have known for many years. Davis’s A History of Saints is a jaunty satire set in Asheville, North Carolina. It reminds me, in ways, of the Alabama author Eugene Walter, who thought parenthetically and found the joy in eccentricity all around him. I won’t quite finish Julyan’s book on this trip, but I’m enjoying the ride https://smpbooks.com/product/a-history-of-saints.


On the first full day here, I go out in search of old churches I haven’t yet photographed in the area. After photographing a promising prospect near the town of Foley, I have car trouble in Summerdale and call AAA for a tow. The first AAA dispatcher I talk to (who I later learned was talking to me from California) is rude when I tell her I am in an unfamiliar place and don’t know where my car should be towed. She tells me that she can’t assist me until I tell her where I want my car to be towed; I respond, “I don’t know – isn’t that your job?” and she disconnects me.

“… a promising prospect near Foley”

On the next try, I reach a more helpful AAA dispatcher who connects me with a local towing company and auto mechanics in Foley who couldn’t be nicer. The unexpected adventure turns out fine in the end and introduces me to a helpful cab driver, a charming hotel shuttle driver, concerned workers at the Summerdale Civic Complex, and Gelato Joe’s Italian Restaurant and Tiki Bar (www.gelato-joes.com).

My car spent the night in Foley but I can’t be unhappy to be “stranded” at the Grand and enjoy catching up with familiar and new faces among the resort staff, while noting that some favorite faces have moved on in the two years since I was last here.

I usually make the trip alone and enjoy it; occasionally, I am able to rendezvous with old friends, and that is pleasant, too. This trip has been a solo experience, so I have had plenty of opportunity to observe and chat with new people.


On the first night here, while dining at Southern Roots at the resort, I notice a party of four. A couple of nights later, at a restaurant in downtown Fairhope, I spot the same foursome at a table across the room.  Back at the hotel, waiting for the elevator, one of the women of the group emerges with a motorized scooter. “Were you just at Camellia Café?” I ask.

“Are you the guy who was eating at the end of the bar?” she responds. “We were talking about you.”

“Why?” I ask. She says that I was an interesting looking person dining alone at the bar and they wondered what my story was.

“My story was that I was having dinner.”

I explain that this trip is my annual pre-Christmas escape and that I usually travel solo. This leads to an interesting conversation and I ask my new acquaintance (who is now on my Christmas card list) if that’s her mother waiting for her at the car. Indeed, the second lady of the foursome, my new acquaintance’s mother, stands patiently in the parking lot, waiting for her transport.


I may have seemed alone to the party of four, but I feel surrounded by friends down here. I have been to the Grand so many times that it feels like a kind of “home” to me (I even manage to stay in the same room each visit). I have caught up with people I see on every trip, had my annual massage in the spa, and grabbed a meal at some favorite places.

The Hope Farm

I have felt the presence of friends – Lily, Libby, Julyan, and others – as I relax in my room. It’s my final night and I try a place that’s new, that wasn’t here on my last trip, before the world shifted in March 2020. The Hope Farm (www.thehopefarm.com) is a sprawling urban farm complex off Fairhope’s main drag with a restaurant and wine bar and a steadfast commitment to local, fresh, and sustainable nourishment. After failing to find fresh oysters on the half-shell in my first few meals down here, I am pleased to find fresh Murder Point oysters, my favorite from Bayou La Batre across the bay, at The Hope Farm restaurant, which instantly becomes another of my favorite places to eat in Fairhope. I make a note to return often on regular sojourns to Baldwin County.

In the morning, I will drive back home to Birmingham after stopping for relishes at Punta Clara Kitchen, a bag of satsumas at Harrison Farms roadside stand, and pecans for Christmas and New Year’s dinners. I will pick up a Po’Boy at Market by the Bay in Daphne to eat along the way. I have a list of historic churches for photos on detours heading north. Like Charlie Brown and Linus, I will continue to find poetry in the season and remain hopeful for better days in the year ahead.

Sunset at the Grand

Happy Holidays.

Van Gogh Is Visiting Birmingham

 A favorite memory of the day after Thanksgiving is of my parents taking me to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham and taking the escalators to the sixth floor and Santa’s Enchanted Forest. The memory of that tradition that stands out most for me was probably in the mid ‘60s. The line wound through cheerful displays of reindeer, winter scenes, and elves at work in their workshop. At the end of the path, Santa on his throne was there to greet all. After Pizitz, we trekked across the street to check out the holiday windows at Loveman’s and went a few blocks north to see the city’s newly-lit Christmas tree in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park. Finally, my parents took me to a book store on Southside and treated me to a book of my choosing. In this particular memory, it was a Dr. Seuss book.

Pizitz is now a residential building where I go to see indie films at Sidewalk Cinema and to grab a bite in the expansive food hall. Loveman’s long ago became a children’s science museum. But I never go to that part of town without remembering that one special night after Thanksgiving.


I thought of Santa’s Enchanted Forest this week when I took my mother to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” People of all ages wandered through the three rooms of the event and I realized, as I watched kids scamper around, that a memorable holiday experience was being created for a lot of people that night.

One of the odd cultural touchstones of this second year of pandemic is the fact that about half a dozen “immersive” shows inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh have sprung up and been attended by enthusiastic responses wherever they landed around the world. The iteration playing in Birmingham through January 2 is the creation of French-Canadian Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. A Monet immersion is beginning to make the rounds and I understand that a Frida Kahlo event is in the works for 2022.

The art of each of those artists seems ripe for the sort of trippy experience I witnessed in Birmingham. The “Beyond Van Gogh” immersion begins with a line moving through a room that serves as a primer for Van Gogh, with panels providing capsule synopses of the artist’s often tortured life, interspersed with comments that include quotes from letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo. The viewer then enters the “Waterfall Room,” which seems to be there primarily to acclimate the audience to the main room. Vertigo is a real risk as the flowing abstractions move down the wall and across the floor. I realized that I needed to be careful about looking down.

The main room, which the publicity bills as “masterpieces … freed from frames” is the reason for the experience. Scored to instrumental music, with an occasional voiceover, the room has projected images flowing across all walls, on three tall triangular pillars in the middle, and over the floor. Some projections are reproductions of Van Gogh’s work but much of the event is flowing abstractions and layering of images from line to detail to color to a recognizable painting. When we entered the room, almond blossoms covered the walls and floor; some of the flora was static while other petals floated gracefully all around. It was a breathtaking moment to enter.

The audience is free to move around. Several sat on the floor. Some moved constantly, others stayed in one place; cameras and selfies were abundant all around. The experience is truly beautiful and mesmerizing in many ways. As I get older, I am more drawn to contemplative experiences, art that frees the mind to wander and find connections. Several dozen people of all ages were in the room and it seemed that each viewer was having a singular experience.

The musical score is often soothing, often soaring, and generally adds to the grandeur of the experience. There is, for me at least, one jarring exception: A lovely instrumental version of Paul Simon’s “America” plays in conjunction with the almond blossoms and beyond. That song is so familiar, at least to a Boomer like me, that I found myself humming along and distracted. Why I thought is “America” part of a Van Gogh exhibit? I still haven’t figured it out.


There have been snarky reviews and comments about the various Van Gogh immersions by art critics around the country. (I’ve written a fair amount of critical essays and reviews through the years and I know snark when I see it; I have perpetrated it on occasion.) The reviews seem to feel that the public domain status of Van Gogh’s work is being exploited and that the various immersions cheapen the work. They don’t think the works’ complexity is given its due or something like that. They don’t think it educates enough – or something like that.

Mainly, however, the snark seems to be aimed at the audience: They take too many selfies; they miss out on the true experience of viewing the works in a museum. There are children running around. It’s all just too “commercial.” The producers make a bald-faced appeal to the audience, especially the “influencers,” to take photos and spread the word. The gift shop is offensive … Or something like that. I saw one article that even told readers which museums they could go to and see the actual works represented in the immersion. That piece was by a New York writer.

I get their righteous snark. I really do; there were moments during the event when I felt that I was being a little bit suckered. But they miss the point. These enterprises are clearly commercial and are buoyed by the entertainment aspect of a necessary and mostly pleasant escapism inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. All audiences do not necessarily have the access to the authentic art of Van Gogh that a New York audience might. And I suspect that the majority of the audience for an “immersive” art experience already has at least a basic knowledge of the art they’re being immersed in; that’s probably why they bought the ticket to begin with (and it’s not a cheap ticket). Others, who may not know the work but are drawn in by the enthusiastic word-of-mouth, may be inspired to learn more after the experience. As for the children, I was amazed at how well-behaved they were. And I was delighted when something would happen that would stop them – wide-eyed and gaping – in their tracks.

My mother, for one, left the experience “a little sad.” Viewing the work, and watching the audience response, she found it sad that Vincent did not live to experience the acclaim he achieved in his post-mortem.

These immersive experiences are certainly destined for oversaturation and for the waning popularity of audience-pleasers of the past like Cirque du Soleil and Riverdance. But, for now, they are achieving their goals and providing an interesting footnote and diversion for our need to readjust and recalculate in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to fade away gracefully.


In Act Two, scene nine of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, a mother returns home from her vacation and announces to her son that “Picasso’s in town.” Her son replies that “Picasso’s dead, Mom.” The mother insists, replying, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum.”

In the final weeks of 2021, at least, Vincent Van Gogh is not dead; he’s visiting Birmingham’s convention center and he’s providing a pleasant and enjoyable hour or so of community and escape.

New Reviews of Southern Fiction

To all of the kind people who responded to my most recent post about missing books (“Page by Page, Measuring a Life”) — Thank You! The books have been found, but I was so moved by the concern and generosity of many.

Here are links to my most recent reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2021/10/13/this-ditch-walking-love

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2021/10/13/fugitives-of-the-heart

Page by Page, Measuring a Life

WARNING: This essay deals with what has become known as a “first-world” problem, so be aware of that as you read. I am very aware of how privileged I am to be stressed about lost books.

I bought a house in the spring. I like it, I like the location, and I know that I will be happy there. Eventually. I moved in on June 1, unpacked, and had the interior arranged the way I wanted it by Independence Day. On July 20, I came downstairs to find water leaking from upstairs onto my kitchen counters; the plumbers and I discovered a well-disguised leak in an upstairs guest bath that had been missed in the home inspection.

Extensive, mainly hidden, damage was found that resulted in my having to get all new floors upstairs, new stairs, and new ceilings downstairs. I used the opportunity to make some upgrades. The house, upon completion, will be much better than it was when I moved in.

The contractors finished their work a few days ago and I spent Saturday putting my stuff back in place. The books in the upstairs bookshelves had been packed away by the construction crew and left in the garage during the construction.

I am a little OCD about my books. They are always placed in alphabetical order by author or, in the case of biography, subject. Even in my most impoverished days in grad school, living in a squalid four-plex in the student ghetto on 13th Avenue, I always kept my books carefully organized. When a career in professional theatre moved me frequently around the country, I always moved with a trailer filled with my books and shelves to be assembled on arrival. Often, the books, my clothes, and some pots and pans were about all I had to move.

When the work on the house was completed, the construction crew moved my books back up to the bedrooms where my bookshelves waited. I hate moving, but I take pleasure in stocking my bookshelves. On Saturday, as I unpacked and alphabetized my books, I discovered that letters “A” through “F” and part of “G” are missing. I searched everywhere in the house and garage where boxes of books might possibly disappear with no luck. I contacted the contractor and project manager to let them know. The contractor got very defensive and assured me that he didn’t take my books; I never thought he “took” them, but I have a hunch they might have been accidentally hauled out with construction debris. It seems far-fetched, but no other explanation comes to mind.

The contractor washed his hands of the problem, but the project manager says he will have the dumpsters checked at the company site (a horrifying prospect). Somehow, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the success of the dumpster dive.


Over the years, I have occasionally weeded out some books. I donated 250 titles to the library on this last move. Another 150 play scripts and theatre books were donated to my old academic department when I retired. By my rough estimate, another 180+ books have now been potentially lost in this latest development. I have been trying to do a mental inventory of some of the books that have been lost. Here is a by no means complete (and alphabetized) list of authors I have remembered so far:

Achebe. Agee. Amis. Atwood. Avedon’s Portraits (1976). Baldwin. Bangs (Lester). Ann Beattie. Beckett. Bragg. Anthony Burgess. Capote. Jimmy Carter. Raymond Carver. Chabon. Cheever. Mark Childress (a college classmate). Cleage. Cunningham. DeLillo. Dickens. Didion. Norman Dubie (whose “Pastoral” is one of my favorite poems ever). John T. Edge. Eggers. T.S. Eliot. Walker Evans photographs. Percival Everett. Faulkner (everything he ever wrote, plus biographies, and critical materials). Fitzgerald. Richard Ford. Franzen. Gaines – Charles and Ernest. Ginsburg …

Also, critical studies of film director Robert Altman. Dozens of issues of The Black Warrior Review, a literary magazine. Photographic volumes on Birmingham and Alabama history. Personally inscribed and signed first editions. Books I bought in high school. Books I bought a couple of months ago.

As I keep listing, I get increasingly out of sorts, but you get the idea. Other readers will understand. Fortunately, my collections of cook books, books on architecture, gardening books, and art books are housed in other parts of the house so those collections remain intact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion if I have read every book on my shelves. Yes, I have. In fact, a book didn’t go on the shelf until I had finished reading it.

I have been asked why I keep the books if I’ve already read them. If you ask a question like that, I’m afraid you will never understand. Suffice it to say, some books I re-read. Some books I use for reference. Some books I just want to have around.

An example: I read The Great Gatsby every year on the Summer Solstice. A decades-long ritual. Once a copy of Gatsby is worn out, I replace it with a new edition, but keep the worn-out copies on the shelf. It is interesting to see my notations in the text from readings past; I mark my life by the passages that once stood out to me and now mean less, and by the passages that I have never particularly noted before which suddenly take on a significance with age.


In 1990, in a home robbery, my entire sizable collection of vinyl records was stolen, along with my stereo system. That was hard, but I shifted to CDs and moved on. This book loss seems more visceral, somehow, and harder to wrap my head around. My book collection from the middle of “G” to “Z” is intact, but one whole bookcase is completely empty.

Almost empty, I should say. I just finished reviewing a book and had not placed it on the shelves yet. The author’s last name starts with the letter B.

James Braziel, it’s all up to you, man. You’re standing in for a host of good authors.

The Houndstooth Trigger

Fried Green Tomatoes (www.eatfgt.com), a comfort food place in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, is an offshoot of the Irondale Café across town, which was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Café in Fannie Flagg’s popular novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The food at Fried Green Tomatoes is mostly seasonal and locally sourced. It offers dine-in and take-out, has a friendly staff and a casual vibe, and has been a great place to have close-by during the pandemic.

It’s popular with the after-church crowd on Sundays and I was standing in a long line waiting to order take-out on a recent Sunday afternoon. I was masked and trying to stay socially distanced, standing against a wall near the door and leaving enough room to let people pass. There was plenty of room to cross in front of me; even so, a woman got up in my face, rudely saying “Excuse me!” I tried to press myself even tighter against the wall. Moving on, she shrieked “War Eagle!” twice to the couple next in line to me, looking back and snarling at me the whole way out (she wasn’t masked, so I could see the snarl). The two fellas with her followed suit (“Excuse me! War Eagle!”)

These are crazy times indeed.

When they were out the door, I glanced at the couple next to me and saw that the man was wearing an Auburn shirt. I was wearing a houndstooth mask. It all became clear. I had just been figuratively slimed by an Auburn fan. My mask must have been a trigger for the woman’s unpleasant outburst. We’re all on edge these days, I guess.


In 1995, I bought a houndstooth scarf at Lazarus department store in Evansville, Indiana, on a wet and cold day. This purchase was years before houndstooth had become so associated with the attire of my alma mater, the University of Alabama. I liked the scarf, didn’t associate it with the University at the time, and still wear it sometimes when it’s cold enough. I was amused a few years later when the University began to exploit the design. I was a student at Alabama during the “Bear” Bryant era and he didn’t always wear houndstooth hats; there are plenty of images of him wearing checkerboard and plaid patterns, too. Still, if you’re going to adopt a fashion statement for sports iconography, houndstooth is a pretty stylish way to go.

Around the time, in the early 2000s, when Alabama football fans began to flaunt houndstooth, I would get a “Roll Tide” any time I wore the scarf. Since I don’t really mind an exchange of “Roll Tide,” I respond appropriately and move on, not bothering to explain that the scarf was never about football for me. I will admit, however, that the houndstooth face mask was a conscious choice.

I take great and justifiable pride in Alabama’s football legacy and I am aware that on occasion some of our fans step over the line. I have not forgotten the idiot who poisoned the live oaks at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner (live oaks that were already being slowly killed, unfortunately, by the Auburn tradition of toilet papering them whenever Auburn won a game – and power-washing them to get the paper out the next day). And I am embarrassed by the fact that Alabama sorority rushees’ TikTok posts went viral during the recent Fall Rush. I have long considered Alabama’s greek system of fraternities and sororities to be the biggest blemish on the University’s reputation.

I am reminded of an incident in Pasadena in 2010 when Alabama won its first national championship of the Saban era. On the day of the Rose Bowl, an Alabama fan, who had probably partied too much early in the day, took to an intersection to scream “Roll Tide” to all who passed. A demure Alabama fan left her seat at a sidewalk café and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Honey,” she said, “you need to settle down. We don’t do that sort of thing out in the middle of the street. Save that for the Rose Bowl tonight.”


Which brings me back to my “War Eagle” woman at Fried Green Tomatoes. I am irritated by that huge chip Auburn people seem to have on their shoulders about Alabama’s football dominance. Frankly, I don’t pay much attention to Auburn football until Iron Bowl week – the week of the annual showdown between the intrastate rivals. Beyond that, Auburn football, for me, is like a gnat – an occasional annoyance, but no big deal. I am quick to point out Auburn’s good veterinary medicine and architecture programs, but the football team and its succession of milquetoast coaches don’t occupy much of my attention. Even on the occasions when Auburn beats Alabama on Thanksgiving weekend, the sting is gone by Monday morning.


Auburn won its second national football championship in school history in 2010. Their first was in 1957. Based on that average, they might have their next national championship around 2063.

I’m pretty sure I can take a pass on that. Roll Tide.

Book Review: From Preaching to Meddling by Francis X. Walter

See my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2021/09/02/from-preaching-to-meddling-a-white-minister-in-the-civil-rights-movement

Savoring Sidewalk 2021

REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.

When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)

But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.

Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.

The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by AL.com’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.

The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.

I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.

The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.

Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.

In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.

Queen Brown Suga Spice at the Alabama

In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.