Friends of the Cafe | Chef Cheetie Kumar | Conversion

 I have often confessed that my least favorite ethnic cuisine is Indian — Asian Indian (curse you, Christopher Columbus). This bias is borne by an aversion to the texture of much Indian food served in American restaurants, which all too often tastes and looks like baby food to my eye and palate. Also, and probably most importantly, since the 1980s I have often been dragged to Indian restaurants by people I didn’t particularly like. Personal and cultural prejudices are often odd things to pinpoint.

Having once again made my confession, I confess further that I have always enjoyed the blends of spices and ingredients of Indian cuisine. I vividly remember a vendor distributing samples of her Indian foods on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1983; I hypnotically followed her back to her tent to savor more.

But, then, people and mediocrity muddled my perceptions.

A couple of years ago, Chef Asha Gomez and fabulous food inspirations from her birthplace in southern India and her adopted home of the American South made me once again and seriously rethink my reaction to Indian cuisine. This revelation came, not surprisingly, at a Friends of the Café event at the Alabama Chanin factory in Florence – the source of many of my recent food-related revelations (www.alabamachanin.com).

More recently, I have been reading Kevin Alexander’s new book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End (Penguin Press, 2019), and one of my favorite threads in this wonderfully readable narrative is the story of Anjan and Emily Mitra and the evolution of their San Francisco restaurant DOSA and beyond (www.dosasf.com). Their effort to fight the stereotypes of Indian food with authentic and heartfelt cuisine makes me long for what I have obviously been missing.

Now, last week, Chef Cheetie Kumar – born in India, filtered through the Bronx, and the chef/owner of Raleigh’s Garland (www.garlandraleigh.com) — sealed the deal for me with an enthusiastically complex five-course meal at the most recent Friends of the Café dinner in Florence. My hesitation about authentic Indian cuisine has mostly been eradicated as of last week. Kumar’s Florence menu was not exclusively Indian, but the Indian details and techniques were a compelling presence throughout the evening.

I am being converted to a finer appreciation of Indian cuisine.

The August edition of the Friends of the Café events tends to be particularly frenetic since it occurs as a sort of preamble to fashion designer Billy Reid’s “Shindig,” a weekend of music, food, and fashion throughout the Shoals community.

The Friends of the Café events are always fund-raisers, often for Southern Foodways Alliance. John Paul White (www.johnpaulwhite.com), a talented musician on the Shoals-based Single Lock Records roster (www.singlelock.com), performed soulfully and authentically before and after the meal. The loquacious Eric Solomon of European Cellars, who curated the wines with Chef Kumar, spoke often and at length about his pairings.

Chef Kumar, who did not appear until after the memorable five-course meal was complete, was the star of the evening. Her dishes were complex but not complicated, beginning with the three passed appetizers that circulated through the café and designer’s show room as the guests assembled. Puffy profiteroles with hot honey and a smoked fish dip with pickled shallot on rye toast were among the appetizers, but I kept leaning in for a bite of the curry leaf polenta with spicy tomato chutney.

When the diners were seated, the diversity of flavor profiles continued to blend and surprise. At my table were Kelly Fields, the James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Pastry Chef of 2019, and her thoughtful sous chef from Willa Jean, a great place I discovered a couple of years ago in New Orleans (www.willajean.com). They were in town to prepare a course for a meal at one of Muscle Shoals’ legendary sound studios on Saturday night of Shindig. It was enlightening to eavesdrop on my tablemates’ expert analyses of each dish as it was presented.

The first seated course was a watermelon and peanut chaat followed by coconut-poached royal red shrimp, creamed corn and tapioca pudding, with Bengali five spice. The third course consisted of a memorable Punjabi grilled summer squash casserole with soft paneer cheese and a fragrant roasted tomato vinaigrette. I think that third dish was my favorite in an evening full of lovely tastes – mainly for the inventive, flavorful, and unexpected use of the summer squash.

The meaty fourth course was a lemongrass summer brisket – big chunks of brisket with fingerling potatoes and pickled green tomatoes in a fresh, steamy, and fragrant broth. Finally, the refreshing dessert course was buttermilk cardamom panna cotta with peaches, olive oil granita, pickled blueberries, meringue, and almonds.

Kumar, a self-taught chef, is also the guitarist for the rock band, Birds of Avalon. I haven’t heard Birds of Avalon yet, but I will attest to Cheetie Kumar’s rock stardom in the kitchen. The meal she presented was thoughtful and imaginative, with diverse and balanced ingredients. It was a meal that will be remembered.

The Friends of the Café dinner series continues to provide an enlightening food education and the introduction to a splendid array of food artists and artisans – both in the kitchen and as fellow guests at the table.

Spahn Ranch | Yasgur’s Farm | Shaggy Dog Stories of 1969

Today, in August 2019, I am older than three of my four grandparents were in summer 1969. My oldest grandfather, Leonard Harbison, was only a year and a half older than I am now.

Back then, of course, they all seemed ancient to me. I keep that in mind as a college professor, surrounded daily by 20-year-olds.

The summer of ’69 is being talked about throughout this, the 50th anniversary. It seems that each week is the golden anniversary of some significant, grand, or unsettling milestone. The Who’s brilliant and pretentious “rock opera” Tommy was released in May 1969 and formed a significant part of the soundtrack of that summer. So did Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” recorded by Glen Campbell – which most of us didn’t realize was an anti-war song. The counter-culture biker movie Easy Rider was in theatres, as were John Wayne in True Grit and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy.

The Stonewall uprising occurred in June, signaling the birth of an organized gay rights movement. And Chappaquiddick, an event that forever stained Sen. Ted Kennedy’s reputation, occurred in July. But the first manned moon landing was the most significant event of July, and of the year.


Since I currently live in Huntsville, there has been a certain level of Huntsville-style hoopla in celebration of the first manned moon landing in July 1969. The Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo missions was created in Huntsville and there is justifiable pride in the accomplishments of NASA that pervade the community all the time, regardless of the year. What Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is to Tuscaloosa, the Saturn V is to Huntsville.

Back then, my interest in the myth of the “final frontier” was peripheral at best. It was exciting to watch launches from Cape Kennedy on classroom televisions in the 1960s, and it was exciting to watch the capsules’ safe splash-downs in the Atlantic afterwards. The whole country grieved when the three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during a pre-flight launch pad test in 1967.

Two and a half years later, my family was living in Nashville when Neil Armstrong made that first “small step” on the moon in that grainy video transmitted back to Earth. My memory of that moment is vivid still. I remember that when the satellite transmission ended on broadcast television, I walked out into our front yard and looked up at the moon. The fact that two Americans were sitting there, and that another was orbiting to facilitate their return, is still daunting, inspiring, transformational to think about.


August of 1969 is particularly memorable for two tragedies – Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the Tate – La Bianca murders perpetrated by the “Manson family” in the hills of Los Angeles. Some say that the gruesome Tate – La Bianca slayings signaled the end of the 1960s, while others make the case that Nixon’s defeat of McGovern in 1972 was the end of the ’60s era. Either way, the Tate – La Bianca case signaled an end to a certain optimistic innocence that characterized large chunks of that decade, despite the war protests and social and political upheaval that fomented throughout those years. August 1969, of course, is also remembered for a slipshod celebration that became an enduring legend – the Woodstock music festival, held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York.


My first memory of Hurricane Camille is a strange one. My family was traveling from Six Flags in Atlanta to Birmingham and made a rest stop in Anniston late in the night. While we were waiting for Mother, Dad struck up a conversation in the parking lot with another man traveling with his family; they began to talk about the massive hurricane that was then bearing down on the Mississippi coast. Somehow, that conversation conjures a memory of the animated neon Goal Post Bar-B-Q sign, an iconic Anniston fixture depicting a football player kicking a football through a goal post. Our rest stop was down the highway from the barbecue joint and I was watching that sign as the two grown-ups chatted, we waited for my mother, and my brother slept in the back seat.


These distant memories are stimulated by a recent viewing of fanboy Quentin Tarantino’s latest ultra-violent fantasy, Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, set in the summer of 1969. The film focuses on two fictional characters, a fading western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt man, best friend, and jack-of-all-trades, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). A presence throughout the film is the very non-fictional Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski, rents the house next door to Dalton. Tate, who is 8½ months pregnant at the movie’s end, floats through the proceedings with a serenity and presence that are exhilarating to watch. Another recurring presence throughout the movie is members of Charles Manson’s hippie cult, skulking regularly on the edges.

Tarantino weaves a shaggy dog story with many loose ends and an entertaining jumble of real-life and fictional characters. The movie begins on February 9, 1969 (my 14th birthday), sets up the characters, and jumps, later, to August 9 of the same year. Tarantino assumes that the audience knows its 1969 pop culture history and throws teases and period references in with the imaginative fictionalization. Quick appearances are made by actors playing Steve McQueen, James Stacy, Sam Wanamaker, and other real-life personalities of the era. We briefly catch a bit of a car radio news broadcast announcing the sentencing of Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In a lovely, carefree interlude, the camera follows Cass Elliott, Michelle Phillips, and Sharon Tate as they hold hands, running through a party at the Playboy mansion, and begin to dance. In another scene, three Manson girls are seen holding hands, smiling like Moonies, singing and skipping down an L.A. sidewalk.

It’s a fascinating and enjoyable movie, made moreso by its frequent dips into a splashy late-60s reality, but always tempered by the very real presence of the darkness that lurks at the Spahn Ranch, the former western movie lot that has been infested by Manson’s followers and hangers-on. In a tense scene, Cliff goes to the Spahn Ranch – a place he knows from past film and television shoots – with a hitchhiker he’s picked up in Hollywood. When he insists on seeing George Spahn, an old friend who is now the blind and aging owner of the ranch, the mood shifts. We worry for the safety of Cliff, and for the foreboding scenarios still to emerge.

I have never warmed up to DiCaprio as an adult actor, but his portrayal of a washed-out, whiny former tv star is effectively irksome and desperate. Brad Pitt, who is aging gracefully, has rarely been as appealingly authentic as he is in his role as Cliff – who might have murdered his wife, but moves through the world with a carefree and amused attitude.

Sharon Tate, who was only 26 when she was murdered, is most remembered now for the last day of her life. In Tarantino’s movie, there is a celebration – through Robbie’s performance – of Tate’s joie de vivre and potential. We follow her as she goes through her day, and discover a complex, upbeat woman far removed from the tragic headlines that have become her legacy. Tarantino’s camera worships Pitt and Robbie in this film, and doesn’t hesitate to linger and marvel at each of them when it has the opportunity.

Obviously, since this is a Tarantino film, there is violence; sometimes, that violence seems gratuitous. Here’s my stance on Tarantino and violence, and I realize there will be those who disagree: To me, Tarantino’s violence is so over-the-top and wild that I find it hard to take seriously. One stifles the urge to laugh at the outrageous excess; the filmmaker does not glorify or even endorse violence, it seems to me, but uses it as a device to celebrate the absurdity all around us to which he seems so drawn.

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy” and many find that hard to wrap their mind around. I think I get it with Chekhov. He explores and revels in the absurdity of our surroundings and everyday lives. I don’t think of Tarantino as “Chekhovian” by any stretch, but I think his prankish and warped world-view enjoys taking his audience to the extremes of a violent society.

For those who think they know how Once upon a Time in Hollywood must inevitably end, and are avoiding it for that reason, I suggest that you see for yourself. Without going into detail, I think the final image of this movie is one of the sweetest images I’ve seen in a movie in years. It’s a moment that portends a whole new trajectory for the end of the ‘60s – an ending that was earned, but, sadly, was never achieved.

New Orleans to Bessemer, 2019

The Bright Star Restaurant’s “Night in New Orleans,” which had its thirtieth incarnation last week, has become a rite of passage for the month of August at the venerable 1907 restaurant in Bessemer, just down I-20/59 from Birmingham. Long billed as “Alabama’s Oldest Restaurant” and the winner of a 2010 James Beard Foundation Award as an “American Classic,” Bright Star has remained a popular dining destination even after the heavy industry that once defined Bessemer has slipped away (www.brightstar.com).

It was my father’s favorite restaurant; at his funeral, one of the ministers quipped in his eulogy that “Grover would sell his lawnmower to eat at the Bright Star.”

“Night in New Orleans” is a three-night event in which a New Orleans chef takes over the Bright Star kitchen and offers selections from a Crescent City restaurant. The late Jamie Shannon of Commander’s Palace and Tory McPhail, current executive chef of Commander’s, are among the notable past chefs who have presided over the event.

This year’s chef, Thomas Robey, recently took over executive chef duties at Tujague’s, the 163-year-old New Orleans staple on Decatur Street on the river side of the French Quarter. Tujague’s is probably most recognizable to New Orleans visitors for the iconic sign over America’s oldest stand-up bar on the corner of Decatur and Madison. The doors are always open and the bar is always crowded with locals and tourists alike (www.tujaguesrestaurant.com).

Chef Robey is no stranger to Birmingham or the Bright Star. He was on Jamie Shannon’s staff for previous “Night in New Orleans” events in the ‘90s and was executive chef of Birmingham’s Veranda on Highlands for several years. He left Veranda for another stint with McPhail at Commander’s before being named executive chef of Tujague’s in summer 2018.

Mother and I arrived on a Saturday evening about twenty minutes before the restaurant opened. A sizable crowd was already waiting in the Bright Star’s large lobby space – a crowd clearly made up mostly of the Bright Star’s dining room’s seasoned veterans. Some chose to sport Mardi Gras beads for the occasion and New Orleans jazz was just audible over the general din as Bright Star hosts began to quickly seat the crowd.

The menu for these events is split into two parts – one features dishes from Bright Star’s regular menu and the other is a sampling of the guest chef’s dishes from his home restaurant. Since my mother has dietary restrictions, the Bright Star part of the menu was her reliable go-to.

I was there, however, for the tastes of New Orleans and focused on the Tujague’s menu, choosing the cheesy char-broiled oysters as my first course. Other first course options were a shrimp and tasso bisque and a watermelon and tomato salad.

The main course offered a skin-on snapper over a corn maque choux, pan-roasted Maple Leaf duck breast, and a grilled pork loin with a mirliton dressing. I, of course, opted for the seafood and the snapper arrived atop a generous and complex maque choux, an elevated succotash-like preparation. Chef Robey’s iteration had a corn and tomato base with finely chopped peppers, green onions, peas, okra, and Creole spices. As I was trying to break down the maque choux ingredients for Mother, Chef Robey strolled past our tableside to explain that the name “maque choux” is probably a French derivation of a Native American name for the dish, which has become an amalgamation of indigenous and Creole techniques.

For the final taste of New Orleans, there was a creamy Grasshopper panna cotta – a nod to the minty signature cocktail invented at Tujague’s in 1918. Garnished with chocolate mints, it was a smooth capper to a rich New Orleans-inspired meal.

Leaving Bright Star’s “Night in New Orleans” in the sultry summer dusk, the urge is strong to take I-59 southbound and travel the quick five hours to experience another night in New Orleans for real.

The Portent of Figs

 I almost passed on the downtown Greene Street Market at Nativity this afternoon (www.greenestreetmarket.com). I’m afraid I’m gathering more at my various farmers markets this summer than I have time to deal with. Birmingham’s Pepper Place on Saturday morning, Latham’s on Tuesdays, and Nativity on Thursday afternoon … occasionally, the Alabama Truck Farmers market on the industrial side of Birmingham, a few others here and there.

At the last minute, though, a brief and gentle rain revived me, and I ventured on out to Nativity to see if inspiration would hit. It always does.

My first stop is always the Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) booth to stock up on their various goat cheese blends and to check in with the Spells, the proprietors. A running joke for Paul Spell when he sees me is to say, “Sir, would you like to sample some goat cheese?” as if I haven’t been using his product for years now.

“Goat cheese!?!” I exclaimed today, as if I’d never heard of such a thing.

Some snooty Huntsville woman, who was finishing her transaction, looked over at me and said, with a sniff, “I love goat cheese. You should try it some time.”

I smiled, batted my eyes at her, and placed my order as she cluelessly walked away.

I had given up on locally grown kale here in mid-July but one of the growers from southern Tennessee had several fresh bags of Russian kale just perfect for several applications. I had passed a booth with enticing bags of field peas and vowed to return to buy a couple. When I circled around a minute later, there were no peas to be found.

I said, “Didn’t you have peas here a minute ago?”

“Yes,” came the speedy reply. “And a man just bought me out. But I have more in the cooler … if I’d told him I had more, he might have cleaned me out completely!”

Grabbing what I needed, I moved on. I had plenty of peaches and cantaloupe, so I passed those places by.

I was about to leave when I noticed a few small baskets of figs nestled among more prolific produce at a bustling stand toward the back of the market.

It seems a little early for figs, but the fig yield has been sparse for the past few years and maybe my timing is off. I heard myself sigh figs at precisely the moment a woman behind me did the same.

I moved quickly to the stand with mixed emotions.

First, I associate figs with the end of summer and I’m not nearly ready for that. But, also, I didn’t really grow up with figs; they were not a part of my own family’s eating heritage and I was late to that club. It was while working with a theatre in Montgomery that some of the locals and transient actors began to awaken me to the charm of the fig crop. It was there that figs became another of my harbingers of the stages of the summer fruits.

Strawberries. Peaches. Blackberries and Blueberries. Figs. Apples.

Often, when the figs disappear, so has the summer.

I debated whether I was ready to invite portentous figs into my seasonal kitchen. The woman behind me made her move and so I quickly maneuvered to the front of the line. I pointed to the basket I wanted and said, “Aren’t they early?”

Apparently, they are, but they might also have a longer growing season than in the past several years, so my lament for the end of summer might be delayed for several weeks.

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.


Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.


The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.


Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019

Ode to Summer – 2019

The verb “slather” was coined specifically to describe putting mayonnaise on bread for a tomato sandwich. Linguists and the dictionary may disagree, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I can never let the Summer Solstice pass without once again expressing my joy at the advent of the season. The Great Gatsby is pulled off the shelf for its annual reading and the bounty of the various farmers markets and highway farm stands becomes increasingly diverse and delectable. The sun rises early and sets well into the evening, giving the heat of the day plenty of time to build in intensity.

The occasional pop-up shower or passing thunderstorm cool things down for a moment, yielding to a sultry steamy aftermath.

The summer tomato sandwich is a seasonal standby once more, its structure changing, based on what other ingredients are available to adorn it. Ripening tomatoes are lined up on the kitchen counter to lend inspiration to another juicy lunch from local farms. It is hard to choose from all of the varieties available; this week, my counter sports more conventional red tomatoes instead of the always tempting heirlooms available to select in cardboard boxes at several of the booths.

A loaf of 10-grain bread from the Mennonite ladies provides two slices to slather with mayonnaise. One slice is topped with several slices of tomato while the other is covered with a layer of basil leaves from the back yard herb garden and crumbles of chipotle pimento cheese from Humble Heart Farms, my favorite purveyor of local goat cheese (www.humbleheartfarms.com). A paper-thin slice of onion tops the basil and cheese. Before the sandwich is assembled, the tomatoes are topped with a sprinkle of sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Finally, after heating a couple of pats of butter in the iron skillet, the sandwich is pressed and cooked until both sides are golden brown.

I pour a glass of iced tea and sit down for lunch at the plant-filled table in the back room that I use as a library, looking out over the lush green growth of my compact back yard beyond. To be honest, by August that “lush green growth” will be trending brown (if recent summers are an indicator), but my relish of the summer months will not be diminished. Today’s sandwich is a quick and delicious way to celebrate the local tomatoes and to cherish the vibrant first days of the official summer season.

Have a great summer.

Dignity

At a busy intersection in Birmingham, a woman representing the local “restoration ministry” approached the car for a donation. She announced that she was “Sister C____,” a recovering addict, that this church changed her life and that of other addicts, and, as the traffic light changed, she handed me her flyer and told me that I could contribute on the website or by mail, if not in person. The address was on the flyer (www.birminghamrestorationministries.org).

We drove on and I handed the flyer to my mother, commenting that “it takes a lot of courage to stand in the middle of the street and announce that you’re a recovering addict,” to which my mother replied that we should go back and make a contribution.

By the time we made it back around to the intersection, the woman and a woman identified as her “sister” were packing up and calling it a day. My mother rolled down the window, handed her a donation, and said, “See? We didn’t forget you.” Sister C____’s gratitude and blessings seemed real and heartfelt and I was glad we had gone back.

Mother has always had a charitable impulse for the down and out and recovering. Dad served their church in Tuscaloosa as co-chair of the Benevolence Committee for years. He and the committee were generous, but Dad was also alert to any possible scam and careful in the spending of what he considered to be “God’s money.” On occasion, if a client asked for an extra that wasn’t a necessity – and especially if a child was involved – Mother would say “If the fund won’t pay for it, I will!”


When I was directing a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the 1980s, I suggested to the actors playing Estragon and Vladimir, the principal characters, that they should think of their characters as homeless. One of the young actors very earnestly announced that he had never seen a homeless person.

“Then you haven’t been looking,” I responded. The other cast members and I began to list the places where he could look and see the homeless that very day as he drove home. We also provided the locations of shelters where he could see people lining up each evening in hopes of securing a cot and a meal.

He returned to rehearsal the next day, shaking his head. “I had no idea.”


Author Chris Arnade has been looking. And what he has seen is chronicled in his new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, (Sentinel, 2019). Arnade, who has a Ph.D. in Physics from Johns Hopkins and twenty years as a successful Wall Street trader, began to explore neighborhoods he was warned to steer clear of. He began with the Hunts Point community of the Bronx and traveled through America, hanging out with addicts and the homeless, the unemployed and the marginalized, displaced labor union members, immigrants, and people who are generally on the fringes of 21st century America. Arnade labels them as “back row America.”

Not only does he look; he also listens – carefully, and without passing judgment.

Arnade left Wall Street to begin a three-year mission to meet “back row” residents in diverse communities throughout the country. Among the places he visits are Bakersfield, California; Bristol, Tennessee; Buffalo, New York’s “East Side”; Lewiston, Maine; Lexington, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s “North Side”; the Ozarks; Prestonsburg, Kentucky; Selma, Alabama; Youngstown, Ohio; and places in between.

Along the way, Arnade meets people, lets them talk, and documents what they say. “If I had an obligation to them,” he writes, “it wasn’t to assume what was best for them; rather, it was to listen and try to understand what they valued, what they wanted, and not get in the way.”

The interview style is patient. He waits. He doesn’t lead. In a conversation with a Mexican American woman, he listens as she speaks at length, and with measured prejudice, about members of the Somali community who have immigrated to her small town on the great plains. When she is finished, Arnade writes, “I wait for her to continue.” She does, and her comments illuminate the plight and goals that inspire her, and people like her, to, in her words, “risk their lives in a desert or swimming across a river.” Ultimately, she says, “It is about opportunity.” Ultimately, she says, “I love America.”

Dignity is filled with such testimony and with Arnade’s photographs of people and places he sees along the way. Many of the photos are of the people you might avoid eye contact with in the parking lot, on the sidewalk, in the store aisles. “The walks, the portraits, the stories I heard, the places they took me, became a process of learning in a different kind of way. Not from textbooks, or statistics, or spreadsheets, or Power Point presentations, or classrooms, or speeches, or documentaries – but from people.”

Many of these portraits are taken in each community’s McDonald’s, which becomes a focal point of the travels. At the beginning, in Hunts Point, Arnade goes to the McDonald’s every day “because everyone did.” The fast food place becomes his haunt everywhere he lands. Part of his process is to go to “the busiest McDonald’s in the community …, eventually talking to the morning regulars.” He notes that, in many communities, McDonald’s is one of the few restaurant options, yet “we make fun of them for going there.”

Arnade also finds himself visiting the houses of worship in the places he lands. He begins his travels as an atheist, but he finds himself at a place where he cannot “ignore the value in faith, not as a scientist, not as a person who claimed to want to learn from others.” He observes Bibles in crack houses, Korans in abandoned buildings. He tells of a picture of the Last Supper that a homeless couple carries with them wherever they find themselves – abandoned buildings, sewage-filled basements, under expressways. He writes, “It is the only real possession they own, beyond the Bible.”

My biases, my years steeped in rationality and privilege, was limiting a deeper understanding. That perhaps religion was right, or as right as anything could be. Getting there requires a level of intellectual humility that I am not sure I have.

Still, he observes that “the few success stories told on the streets are of relatives, friends, or spouses who found God, got with the discipline and order of a church, and moved away …Faith is the reality and a source of hope. Science is the distant thing that doesn’t necessarily do much for you.”

Arnade does not cling to religion, but he knows how to testify. He examines the “educational meritocracy” that spawned people like him, and he finds it lacking.

He writes

It is a wholesale rejection that cuts to the core. It isn’t just about them; it is about their friends, family, congregation, union, and all they know.

The educational meritocracy is a well-intentioned system designed to correct massive injustices that enslaved, demeaned, constricted, and ranked people based on the color of their skin, sexuality, and gender. Yet in attempting to correct a nasty and explicit exclusion, we have replaced it with an exclusion that narrowly defines success as all about how much you can learn and then earn.

It is a system that applauds itself for being a meritocracy, allowing anyone to succeed. Implying that those who don’t choose this path, who can’t or don’t pick up and move constantly, who can’t overcome the long odds, are failures and it is their own fault.

Arnade laments the fact that Wall Street, his “old world,” was given whatever it wanted, no matter the damage, and what it wanted was “to lower labor costs no matter how. Mostly that meant shipping U.S. jobs requiring muscle overseas and bringing jobs requiring college here.”

Arnade realizes that the values of the meritocracy are not shared by all.

We didn’t think about changing our definition of success. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued – getting more education and owning more stuff – wasn’t what everyone else wanted.

It isn’t just about money. These entire communities are stigmatized socially and culturally. The feeling of being excluded, of being different, is more than about what things you own; it is also about what you know, what you learn, how you approach issues.

Much of the back row of America … is humiliated. The good jobs they could get straight out of high school … have left. The churches providing them a place in the world have been cast as irrational, backward, and lacking. The communities that provided pride are dying, and into this vacuum have come drugs. Their entire worldview is collapsing, and then they are told this is their own fault: they suck at school and are dumb, not focused enough, not disciplined enough.

We have implemented policies that focus narrowly on one value of meaning: the material. We emphasize GDP and efficiency, those things that we can measure, leaving behind the value of those that are harder to quantify – like community, happiness, friendships, pride, and integration.

Arnade realizes that the schism in this country is not so much a race issue as it is a class issue, and class — the “haves” and the “have-nots” —  is his focus. Arnade’s comments amplify my own concern that we currently have a government that hates, villifies, and exploits the poor and underserved. Neither side of the aisle is exempt. Arnade carefully avoids partisanship throughout his book, but he does observe that the current political climate is rife for the “politics of blame” that so demean us as a nation.

Finally, the book’s title summarizes the theme that Arnade continues to reference. “Most of all,” he writes, “I ended up finding what is often overlooked in stigmatized neighborhoods: dignity.”


This essay quotes liberally from Arnade’s book because I think it’s important that we hear his unfettered voice.

When I started “Professional Southerner” in 2014, I envisioned it as an escape tool, a place to ponder and share those people, places, and things that caught my fancy and gave me insight or delight. At first, that was true. As the years have gone by and I have observed the world around and beyond me, I notice that I am more drawn to reflections that try to make sense of what’s going on. I’m trying to understand a world that seems – in so many ways – to be veering away from the ideals of what our country means and what it should strive to achieve.

Books like Dignity help me to try to put a finger on what’s going on at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century.

It is a powerful and moving document of this pivotal and decisive moment in our time.