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 ( 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.


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 (

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.

Horwitz | Olmsted | Reconstructed

Frederick Law Olmsted reportedly preferred the designations of “park-maker” or “scenery-maker” to the title of “landscape architect” that most often describes him. Yet, he is perhaps the most identifiable landscape architect in the world, based primarily on his work with Calvert Vaux on New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Other notable Olmsted landscapes include the Biltmore Estate and the U.S. Capitol grounds, among many high-profile commissions.

Because of Central Park, Olmsted’s considerable work and influence on landscape and park creation has been exaggerated to super-natural proportions. It seems that everywhere one travels, one has Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs pointed out. Truth is, they’re usually not.

It’s an understandable mistake. So many communities and public spaces incorporate Olmsted’s technique of creating natural-seeming fluidity to create landscapes that look like they were always there. It is stunning to compare photographs of the rocky and swampy Manhattan terrain that ultimately became Central Park with the well-engineered “natural” environment by Olmsted and Vaux that millions enjoy annually.

Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood is an Olmsted-designed environment; Montgomery’s Cloverdale is not documented as an Olmsted design, although some claim it. Cloverdale is attributed to Joseph Forsyth Johnson. The shared influence is easy to see as both neighborhoods follow very similar principles. Also, Olmsted definitely advised on the landscape design of the Capitol grounds in Montgomery.

Olmsted did not design the campus of Alabama A&M University, north of Huntsville, but the firm founded by his sons, Olmsted Brothers, did documented consultation on that campus into the 1950s as well as designing and advising on numerous other familiar college campuses, public spaces, residential environments, and national parks throughout the country.

These musings on Olmsted are prompted by a recent reading of a new book inspired by Olmsted’s travels in the American South in the decade prior to the Civil War. Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide (Penguin Press, 2019) documents author journalist Tony Horwitz’s efforts to gauge the politics of the South in the months leading up to the 2016 election while retracing Olmsted’s 1850s Southern journey.

Frederick Law Olmsted spent over a year traveling in the South, writing dispatches for the fledgling New York Times under the pen name of “Yeoman.” Olmsted began his trek as a curious observer but came away as an avid abolitionist and carried those passions throughout and beyond the Civil War that would soon come. Olmsted, whose early career was checkered at best, did not find his calling of landscape design until after his Southern foray. It is suggested, by Horwitz and others, that much of his later landscape design was influenced by what Olmsted observed on his Southern travels and, after the War, he returned to the South throughout his career.

Olmsted was committed to creating democratic public spaces that were accessible to everyone and would encourage the mingling and interactions of all.

As fervently as I love the South, and, as much as I plan to live out the rest of my life here, I am not a fan of most Southern politicians; however, as a student of political science, much entertaining fodder has been supplied by that too despicable breed of the Southern politician. If I ever decide to abandon my homeland, it will be because of its wretched and draconian politics. However, I am determined to stay and continue to work for change and progress from within.

As much as I cherish the spread of Southern foodways and life styles, music, art, and culture to a broader national and world audience, I have never wanted the politics of the South to become “mainstream.” Yet, it seems that Nixon and Reagan’s Republican “Southern Strategy” from decades past has permeated the country beyond the South in the present day and that Southern politics and politicians now sound more and more like politicians throughout the land – from the Executive level to the county commissioner.

I oppose and regret this trend. The last thing I would want to export from my region is its politics.

Tony Horwitz’s always entertaining book purports to explore Southern ideologies and attitudes at a breaking point in American culture, but it is really more of a Southern frolic to explore the (often lunatic) fringe. Horwitz meets many of his subjects in dive bars, so the conversations are animated, loose, and, too often,  predictably cringe-worthy.

Horwitz boards a towboat pushing coal barges along the Ohio, takes a riverboat down the Mississippi, rents a Kia through Louisiana, and rides a mule under the direction of an alleged sadist named “Buck” through the Texas hill country. While on the border in Texas, he frequently crosses the Rio Grande with locals from Eagle Pass, Texas, into Piedras Negras, Mexico.

After a negligible foray into New Orleans, highlighted by Horwitz’s descriptions of a transformative experience in a predominantly black Baptist church and a disappointing visit to Audubon Park, Horwitz and his Australian pal, Andrew Denton, venture deeper into Louisiana bayous, Cajun country, and what Horwitz describes as the “unreconstructed South.” Andrew is of weak stomach and is quickly sidetracked by the local cuisine, which puts a damper on one of the most enticing elements of that part of the country.

Horwitz and Denton alight for a while in Colfax, Louisiana, the site of the bloodiest massacre of freed blacks in the decade after the Civil War. On a tip from a Colfax bartender, Horwitz and Denton attend the “Louisiana Mudfest,” the setting for one of the most vivid and, for me, distasteful episodes of Horwitz’s contemporary narrative. Horwitz, Andrew, and the Kia (“Killed in Action,” quips Andrew) travel into the heart of darkness of the plowed and mud-covered fields of a former plantation waiting to do battle with monster trucks helmed by drunks and rednecks. For me, and for most people I know, the “White Trash Only” sign at the entrance gate would be all that was needed to keep me away. It’s a colorful and entertaining chapter, but hardly representative of the region.

Horwitz spends a major part of his journey of discovery in Texas – which I consider only peripherally Southern – and he devotes about half of his book to adventures in Texas. He seems fascinated by all of the incarnations of Texans that he meets along the way, especially the descendants of Germans. He sees through the forced Chamber of Commerce “weirdness” of Austin and seems to be overwhelmed by Houston’s formidable girth and lack of zoning laws. When I lived in the Houston area, one of the things I actually liked was the lack of rational zoning and the way that one might, for example, find great Mexican food in a cozy restaurant in the middle of what was otherwise a residential neighborhood.

However, as someone who lived on an island off the coast of Texas (Galveston) for two years, my primary impression was that Texans are mighty proud of something, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what.

Horwitz effectively picks and chooses his examples of the “American Divide” – an idea I find as distasteful as the simple-minded notion of “red” and “blue” states. He masterfully presents a raucous and highly readable trek through a part of the country that is probably more mainstream than he or I would care to admit. Occasionally, he finds flaws in the reasoning of his hero, Olmsted. It’s a book I recommend, but don’t expect it to draw any credible conclusions; it provides a lot to ponder.

I finished Spying on the South on May 26. The next day, I read that Tony Horwitz had died, unexpectedly, at age 60. He will be remembered for his witty and probing examinations in books such as Baghdad without a Map, One for the Road: An Outback Adventure, and Confederates in the Attic. And now, Spying on the South. He will be remembered as a writer who tried to make connections and connect the dots in an increasingly baffling world.

Postscript: Even though Horwitz’s recent book does not venture into Alabama, the dust cover features a photograph of the Webb-Bonds-Bamberg house, an ante-bellum home off Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama. It is familiar to me.


“Magenta on White,” (oil on panel), Jared Small (2019)

I went to the Huntsville Museum of Art ( for inspiration this week. That is always an iffy proposition since I tend to find the Huntsville Museum cold and sterile. I visited frequently when I first moved to Huntsville but, over the years, I just stopped out of apathy and frustration.

This week I was on a short break from work and I was at home for a few days and I woke up one morning determined to take a mini-vacation. The main incentive for choosing to spend some time at the Huntsville Museum was an exhibit in conjunction with Alabama’s 2019 bicentennial. “Our Shared Heritage: Alabama Artists from the Collection” is a two-part exhibit featuring Huntsville Museum holdings by artists from Alabama or with an Alabama connection.


“Celebrated Figure” sculptures by Clifton Pearson with 4 William Christenberry photographs on the wall behind.

The first part, which I missed, showcased Alabama artists from 1850 to 1940. The current companion exhibition features Alabama art from 1940 to the present. It’s a nice hit-and-miss exhibit, featuring artists I know and with whom I am familiar. Some of the most significant Alabama artists of the past 75 years are missing, but a number of notable artists are represented. So is the ubiquitous Mr. Nall. Among my personal favorites in the exhibit are a trio of the noble “Celebrated Figure” series by ceramic artist and sculptor Clifton Pearson and four classic photographs by William Christenberry.

As I walked through the bicentennial exhibition, I kept being distracted by the luminescence of oil paintings in a side gallery. It was an exhibit called “Encounters – Jared Small: Southern Moments in Time.” When I was finished with the Alabama exhibit, I ducked into the side gallery to see what that was about (

Small is a Memphis-based artist whose work seems to transverse reality with a painterly form of magical realism. At a glance, the paintings seem photorealist, but – upon closer examination – there always seems to be something else going on – color suddenly swooshes across the canvas, ethereal light emanates from an unseen source, flowers float and drip mysteriously.

In one of the narratives that accompanies the exhibit, Small talks about how his flower paintings were inspired by the flowers sent for his father’s funeral. He speaks of observing them closely, of noting the fleeting nature of the flowers that serve as tributes to those who have passed on.

Small’s subjects include portraits, vibrant still lifes, and even more vivid architecture. The architectural paintings were my favorite. In his own way, Small seems to be doing something similar to what Christenberry did – albeit in a different medium. Each artist takes places that are fading into memory and exalts what remains.

This technique is most potent for me in a couple of paintings of shotgun houses in the exhibit. There were other styles of architectural paintings in the show, but the shotgun is a style of Southern vernacular architecture that always speaks to me with its simplicity and functionality of design.

“Pink Roses” (oil and resin on paper), Jared Small (2018)

The standard for s shotgun house is three to four rooms lined up one after the other with no hallways. Typically, the front room is the living area, the central rooms are bedrooms, a bathroom is thrown in there somewhere, and the back room is a kitchen. Most agree that the structures were labelled as “shotgun houses” because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the shells would go straight through every room of the house, exiting through the back door. There are other etymologies, but that’s the one I prefer.

These old styles of vernacular architecture were used in the South before air conditioning was common and one of the best things about them was their ability to circulate air throughout the space. Having the front and back doors of a shotgun house open creates a natural cooling airflow throughout the residence. The “dogtrot,” one of my other favorite styles of historic domestic architecture, incorporates an open breezeway down the center of the house with rooms opening off either side of the breezeway. My Grandmother Harbison grew up in a dogtrot house in rural Cullman County; by the time I knew that house, at what was always referred to as the “old homeplace,” the dogtrot had been closed in. However, the idea of the dogtrot breezeway was still in effect whenever the front and back doors were open.

Shotguns seem more common to urban areas and dogtrots are often in rural settings. Both – whether urban or rural – were usually lifted a few feet off the ground, which gives the advantage of added airflow beneath the floors. A few years ago, when I was playing around with home designs and toying with the idea of building my own, I settled on a modified dogtrot with a loft on the public side.

The shotgun style is often considered low-income worker housing, and, indeed, many former factory towns and industrial cities had an abundance of the style. Many of those have gone away over time but the charm and practicality of the style seem to be receiving renewed appreciation.

“Shotgun Houses; Bessemer, Alabama,” Nick Gruenberg

One of my favorite photographs by photographer Nick Gruenberg ( is a photo of a row of shotgun houses in Bessemer, a former industrial town a few miles southwest of Birmingham. Each house has been painted a vivid bright rainbow hue; collectively, they create a happy block among the houses of the community.

Shotgun houses are still abundant throughout New Orleans, in an abundance of uses. In the upscale Garden District, the immaculate Seven Sisters houses sit in a pretty row on Coliseum Street. Urban legend has it that the Seven Sisters were built by a father for his seven daughters, but the more prosaic version is that they were built as “spec houses.” Shotgun houses were ideal for urban areas since they were only one-room wide and fit comfortably on a narrow city lot. The “double-barrel shotgun,” even more space-efficient, was two individual shotgun houses that were duplex-joined.

New Orleans’s renowned Brigtsen’s restaurant, Frank and Marna Brigtsen’s Riverbend staple, is housed in a modified shotgun ( Outstanding examples of shotgun houses still serve as residences throughout the French Quarter, Treme, and Marigny neighborhoods.

In my very favorite episode of the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” the last remaining shotgun house in Waco was moved to a new lot and turned into a dream home for a young couple. I would move into that house in a minute (except I wouldn’t move to Waco, so there’s that). However, watching that episode on several occasions, I notice that closet or storage space is never shown. That has always struck me as the major flaw in the 19th century shotgun – there never seem to be closets for modern residents.

As I was thinking about this essay, I heard a cut of music called “Sama” by the English ambient/electronic duo ISHQ. The sounds of ISHQ were fluid and dream-like and, since I already had Jared Small’s paintings in mind, seemed the perfect score for his vivid, evocative, and contemplative art.

Go into an art museum – any art museum, even one you don’t particularly like – for inspiration. You never know the unexpected places where it might lead.

“Shotgun House; French Quarter” (2007)

“Shotgun House; French Quarter,” (2007)

Que Sera, Sera

When I was growing up in Birmingham in the ‘60s, local television station channel 6 ran a show called “Films of the ‘50s” on Saturday evenings.

I assume the show’s opening was in black and white; at least that’s how I remember it since we didn’t have a color television at the time. The opening sequence is an elaborately produced nighttime scene for what was essentially a two-hour slot featuring movies from the previous decade. A limousine drives up a circular drive in front of a grand Colonial-style mansion (actually, channel 6’s headquarters then and now). The background music is the lush, romantic score for piano with orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (18th Variation).”

The limo stops at the mansion’s front steps and a couple in formal evening attire emerges and walks into the building. My young mind assumed they intended to view the film while eating caviar and sipping champagne in some dark paneled room somewhere in the recesses of that big house.

After the much ado of the opening segment, there would be a showing of some 1950s movie. This was before NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” and ABC’s “Movie of the Week” so I suspect that much of my earliest viewing of semi-recent films was courtesy of “Films of the ‘50s.”

In my memory (faulty as it may be), it seems like the Marilyn Monroe thriller Niagara was shown on the series every couple of months. Perhaps my memory of that film’s frequency is stoked by the fact that I had the nagging suspicion that I wasn’t quite old enough to be watching Niagara. However, we had television, and my parents were pretty lenient about bedtimes and television viewing, so I checked out what I could on the two commercial channels and one public television channel that made up Birmingham television in those early days of the medium.

Doris Day died a few days ago and another of my Baby Boomer touchstones is gone. I was a fan.

My boyhood crush on Doris Day, with her honey-tinged voice and dewy, freckled complexion, was potent and irrevocable. I suspect that my earliest exposure to Doris Day movies was on a black and white television screen on Saturday night watching “Films of the ‘50s.”

Doris Day began her career as a big band singer in the 1940s. Her voice in those early recordings is crystal clear, flirtatious, and wistful. She has a sure feel for the lyrics and she embraces the listener with the fullness of her sound. Her first #1 recording, “Sentimental Journey,” inspired one of my lamest punch lines in the ’70s: “My name is Edward, but you can call me ‘Sentimental’.”

With her interpretive skills, it’s little wonder that her talents were tapped for an acting career by the time the 1940s were over. Doris Day’s movies were a little too adult and suggestive for prepubescent me back then, so I know my first exposure to the films was on the television screen and not at a movie theatre. As wholesome as the image was, Doris Day’s virginal tease of a succession of leading men throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s was not the sort of thing my parents would take me to the movies to see.

So I watched her on TV. Sticking to the “Films of the ‘50s” theory, that’s probably where I first saw Day in Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much with James Stewart (where she introduced “Que Sera, Sera,” which would become her theme song), the Ruth Etting biography Love Me or Leave Me with James Cagney, and the musicals Calamity Jane and The Pajama Game.

1959’s Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson, was the comedy that set the standard for the Doris Day genre – and the “Doris Day film” did indeed become a genre unto itself. It’s a silly “rom-com” premise: Successful New York interior decorator Jan (Day) is frustrated that she is on a telephone “party line” with successful playboy/composer Brad (Hudson). She can’t use her phone because he’s always on the line seducing a succession of women. When Jan and Brad accidentally meet in person, Brad pretends to be a naïve Texan, Rex Stetson, who charms Jan with his down-home ways and corn-pone accent.

Tony Randall is on hand as Brad’s best friend who carries a torch for Jan and Thelma Ritter is Jan’s wise-cracking and scheming housekeeper. It’s a formulaic comedy with elements – starting with a party line – which instantly date the movie. Other elements include Brad’s insinuations to Jan – over the party line – that her new boyfriend Rex (who, of course, is really Brad) just might be gay. The fact that Rock Hudson was one of the first major celebrities to succumb to AIDS – when it was still known as “the gay cancer” – makes this footnote of his first collaboration with Doris Day even more intriguing.

Pillow Talk was an instant success that cemented the public perception of Doris Day. She and Hudson did two more comedies together (Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers). Doris Day did subsequent comedies, using similar formulas, with a string of leading men. She was always perky and smart, successful in whatever career she had, and a formidable challenge for the men who sought to seduce or minimize her.

As the ‘60s changed the world and Doris Day’s movies began to be seen as old-fashioned, and as she dealt with a much-publicized bankruptcy suit following the death of her third husband, she moved (unwillingly) to television. “The Doris Day Show” premiered in 1968. The show began as a pastoral sit-com about a widow with two young sons who moves to her father’s ranch across the bay from San Francisco. The show aired for five years and transformed itself radically from season to season. By the fifth and final season, Day was a single career woman living in San Francisco with neither ranch, father, nor kids in sight – and dating Peter Lawford.

With the end of “The Doris Day Show,” in 1973, Doris Day basically retired from acting. She was famously an activist and advocate for animals and animal rights and her 1980s syndicated program, “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” focused on that mission. She had her old buddy, Rock Hudson, as a guest on the show; his gaunt and sickly appearance fueled the speculation that he had AIDS. A year later, Hudson was dead.

When “Doris Day’s Best Friends” ceased to exist, Doris Day essentially moved out of public view. She apparently lived an active but private life for the past thirty years, advocating for her animals and eschewing multiple opportunities to make public appearances or to receive awards.

Doris Day’s film persona became a joke for some people over the course of her career. She was referred to as “the world’s oldest virgin” and people would smirk about her innocent but suggestive movies.

I always felt like her characters were in on the smirk.

Doris Day’s various personae, from my vantage point, represent an era when privacy and discretion were still cultural values. Her characters were not prudes or ingenues; they were simply women who wanted control over their lives and destinies. They wanted their own say over how their lives were lived, and with whom.

I suspect those values haven’t completely gone out of style.

Ferry Boats Sink

Chef Bill Smith, a legendary chef, of Crook’s Corner, a legendary restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has a museum-quality collection of vintage tee-shirts from mid-to late-20th Century rock bands reaching into the 21st Century ( While making plans to attend a dinner prepared by Smith at the Alabama Chanin Factory’s “Friends of the Café” series, I considered wearing one of my own vintage tee-shirts, collected from years as an undergraduate volunteer for the University Program Council’s series of concerts and events at the University of Alabama.

I had settled on my most cherished tee-shirt (and one of the few that still fits) – the simple black tee from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 concert tour appearance in Tuscaloosa – but I chickened out at the last minute and opted instead for my college professor drag of open-collar dress shirt with jacket and slacks.

I was not the only one considering the tee-shirt gesture. John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, revealed the concert tee under his jacket during his virtuosic introduction of Bill Smith and Alabama Chanin’s inaugural Project Threadways Symposium (, which kicked off in Florence that night (

John T. Edge, whose prodigious knowledge of southern foodways and culture is always impressive, tied together the Shoals music and textile culture, Smith’s food, and Alabama Chanin’s Project Threadways, in inspired fashion. Project Threadways, an Alabama Chanin outreach and research initiative, collects information specific to the Southern textile industry – which was a major player in the Shoals prior to NAFTA. In addition, Project Threadways explores the Shoals and the broader Southern community through oral histories and other relevant research.

I was only able to make it to Bill Smith’s opening night feast at the Factory but visitors from throughout the country joined the locals and regulars for an event that explored the ongoing pull and mystique of the Shoals.

Chef Bill Smith’s recipes often exalt the contributions of talented immigrants who have worked in his kitchen over the years. He cherishes his relationships with Crook’s Corner co-workers from Vietnam, China, the former Soviet republics, Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere. His recipes reflect the international flavors he’s learned in his kitchens from employees from throughout the world. He even, he writes, had a period when he employed “rockers” in need of employment between gigs. He learned from all of them.

“I realize that everyone in the world cannot come here to live in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who complain so loudly about immigration have had much experience with new immigrants. Getting to know people from all these places has been one of the great privileges of my life.”

I don’t often sport bumper stickers but this past winter I was compelled to order a bold bumper sticker that simply reads “FAKE CRISIS.”

I think Bill Smith would agree.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of dining at Crook’s Corner (and that includes me), Bill Smith might be familiar from his regular appearances with Chef Vivian Howard in the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” where he memorably shared his preparations of persimmon pudding, corned ham, and – my favorite – his father’s family recipe for sunchoke relish.

Bill Smith, who retired from Crook’s Corner in January 2019,  absorbs all of the foodways of his Southern culture and his family, including his Southern grandmother’s “mean Yankee German” grandparents, to create his food. He also honors the traditions of Crook’s Corner founding chef Bill Neal, who preceded Smith and is credited with making shrimp and grits a Southern staple.

The food Smith served in Florence last week was real food – humble and authentic, quietly sophisticated, honest, and finessed without showing off. It was a suitable accompaniment to lively conversation punctuated by occasional gasps at the deliciousness of the bites being savored. Many of the recipes are featured in, or variations of, recipes in Smith’s essential book, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006), a cherished touchstone for many cooks of the South and beyond.

Seasoned in the South has an introduction by author Lee Smith, one of the South’s most authentic voices. Bill Smith’s recipes and menus follow and honor each season’s harvest with evocative intervals such as “An Outdoor Supper after the Last Outing of the Season”; “Snowed In”; “A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass”; and “Big Picnic on the Fourth of July.” His “New Year’s Day” menu is very similar, amazingly, to the one I served to guests at my own house for many years in many places.

Smith’s Florence dinner was superb from the moment we walked into the Alabama Chanin Factory. Passed appetizers were circulating and each was a treat. The bread that accompanied three of the pass-arounds was delicious, but a little too chewy to accommodate conversation; that glitch, however, did not distract much from the fine and distinct flavors.

Alabama Chanin’s Anne Ryan Cavin curates the beverages for the Factory dinners and always presents with a unique and impeccable taste. For the Smith dinner, she selected local options from Florence’s Singin’ River brewery, a Sangria, two Spanish wines, and a Prosecco for dessert.

My first taste of the evening was a chicken liver mousse with onion jam. I love well-prepared chicken liver to begin with and Smith professes an affinity for “guts,” so that first bite was an automatic hit. I have my own strong affinity for pimento cheese, which my mother often served on celery when I was a kid, and I take pride in the pimento cheese I make myself; Chef Smith’s pass-around pimento cheese appetizer was perfectly spiced, as was the hot pepper jelly that followed. The fourth appetizer, unencumbered by the bread, was a very plucky and fulfilling deviled egg.

As the guests were seated, the first course was unexpectedly simple and superb. A white bean and turnip green soup arrived in a clear broth. Startling in its simplicity, the soup was magnificent. Before that initial bliss faded, a mixed salad second course was served with local spring greens coated with a subtle Crook’s house dressing.


The third course was a generous platter of braised pork shank with posole (hominy soup), chayote (a squash), and Salsa Ranchera. The plate’s flavors, distinctly Latinx, had the familiar sense of a Sunday dinner at any family table. Our table happily accepted seconds.

I suspect that the most talked-about dish of the night was the dessert course – “Atlantic Beach Pie” with freshly whipped cream. This dessert apparently sprang from Smith’s eastern North Carolina region’s conviction that one must never eat dessert after a seafood meal. The exception, it seems, was lemon meringue (or any citrus-based) pie. Our meal did not include seafood, but Atlantic Beach Pie is probably Crook’s Corner’s most revered dessert. Regardless of its evolution, the pie was a hit. Smith’s original adaptation used a saltine cracker crust but his published and Florence versions used more buttery Ritz crackers.

There is a kindness and decency that emanates from Bill Smith. These qualities are evident in his dishes and in his comments at the end of the meal. There was a serene tranquility while the chef interacted with guests at the conclusion of the evening. It moved me.

In the 1990s I was working at a theatre on Galveston Island, Texas. Because the thought of living in Texas had always been anathema to me, I was fond of telling folks that I lived “on an island off the coast of Texas.”

Crossing Galveston Bay with a good and trusted friend on a ferry one day, I was worried about the theatrical show I was currently directing. I had the usual problems – inexperienced cast, imperfect set, inadequate budget. I was stating – for neither the first nor the last time – my stress as a director.

“I want a low-pressure job,” I said. “Maybe I should be a ferry boat captain, going back and forth across the bay all day.”

My friend was silent for a while. Finally, he took a deep and significant breath and said, “Well, y’know, ferry boats sink sometimes.”

More recently, friends have told me I should have pursued a career in the culinary industry. They note that I seem to be comfortable with food culture and I like to cook when I have the opportunity. But I think – given my temperament – that I might spend my kitchen time worrying that I might have inadvertently poisoned a diner.

It’s too late to worry about what my culinary career might entail; it was probably a bad idea to begin with.

That thought provides even more incentive to admire and extol the fearless cuisine of Chef Bill Smith.