Tag Archives: Truman Capote

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.

Notes on Cursive Writing

My great-grandfather John Houston McCarn was born in 1865, the year that Lincoln was assassinated. He lived until 1959. That is significant for me because I vaguely remember seeing Grandpa McCarn when I was a pre-schooler. We went to his house in Cullman “town”; I got impatient that the old gentleman was hard of hearing and things had to be repeated all the time.

When I was older, I realized that Houston McCarn was born the year the Civil War ended; I was impressed that I had known a person with that particular direct connection to history.

Grandpa McCarn was a highly educated man and a school teacher. Based on the amount of land and real estate he managed to accrue in Cullman, Jefferson, and Walker counties in his long lifetime, he was a savvy investor as well. Six of his seven children were alive when he died and the property was split in many directions, so none, I suspect, got a lot.

I remember going to the Cullman county community of Bremen with my mother and grandmother to witness an auction of one of Houston McCarn’s rural schoolhouses, just a few hundred yards away from the “home place” where my grandmother Eula McCarn Harbison and her siblings grew up.

Mother remembers Grandpa McCarn’s large library. We have no clue what happened to his books when he died, but I shudder to think of the probability that they were discarded.

The discipline of clear penmanship was part of every school teacher’s domain in the days when Grandpa was teaching and I would look at samples of Grandpa McCarn’s elegant writing in letters and penmanship exercises in my grandmother’s chests of drawers when I was young.

After Grandmother Harbison died, I came to be in possession of two faded sheets of Grandpa’s writing. One sheet has his stylish rendering of the letter “E” with a few sample words starting with that letter. One of the words, coincidentally, is the name “Edward.” Even though the writing predates me by decades, the coincidence is neat.

The second sheet is the rendering of two images of birds. Grandpa McCarn used these images to teach the basic strokes of cursive writing. I have wondered how his students – farm boys and girls in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reacted to the rigorous discipline of Houston’s exercises in cursive penmanship.

I had the fading sheets of writing framed and they hang in my bedroom. I know they will seem worthless to anyone who runs across them when I am gone, but they are remarkably valuable to me. Houston would probably be stunned to know that his doodling from a century ago or more is hanging in a place of honor in the home of that 4-year-old boy.

Grandpa McCarn’s son-in-law, my grandfather Leonard Harbison, was a farmer’s son from a large family. He lacked a lengthy formal education, but he had mastered Grandpa McCarn’s deliberate and stylized birds and was still drawing them into his old age. I remember Granddaddy Harbison’s skilled rendering of the birds in the margins of books. He lived to age 93, almost as long as his scholarly father-in-law.


Over a decade after Grandpa McCarn died, those of us in Birmingham city schools had weekly classes in penmanship. I remember that in second grade, when we shifted from printing to cursive, it was referred to as “real writing.”

I have thought of it in those terms ever since.

At that time, Birmingham City Schools employed handwriting specialists – teachers who came to schools to ensure that the students’ cursive writing was up to par. In addition, we took weekly handwriting classes as part of our curriculum and were assigned a grade for penmanship in our report cards.

One time in fifth grade, my straight-A report card was marred by a “C” in penmanship from Mrs. Caskey. I think the shock of that “C” instilled in me a life-long commitment to be conscientious about my handwriting. Over the years, it has changed drastically; as I get older, it loses a bit of its confidence, but it’s still a source of pride.


It saddens me that cursive writing is no longer taught to elementary school students. A “good hand,” as it was called in the past, was once a mark of an educated person. Now, I list cursive writing as a “special skill” on my vita.

Nowadays, when I write notes to young people, I struggle with whether or not I should write in cursive. More often than not, I print the text and sign my name in cursive. I worry that I might insult the recipient either way: Am I insinuating they can’t read cursive? or Am I deliberately writing in a style they can’t read?


Literacy in general is a touchy area in dealing with youth, for whom “literacy” may take on a very different meaning than it did when I was their age. A young friend tactfully put me in my place recently. I was accustomed since her birth to sending picture books to her for Christmas and her birthday. The last time I gave her a picture book, she wrote a polite thank you note with a gentle reprimand, telling me, “I am reading chapter books now.”

I got her point, vowed to gift her no more picture books, and was delighted that she knew to send a handwritten thank you note.


“That’s not writing; it’s just typing” (or words to that effect) was Truman Capote’s catty dismissal of the Beat writers in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, in the 1950s.

I wonder how he might respond to our age of tweets and posts, blogs and instant messaging, to the obsolescence of typewriters and handwriting in general. How might he and his contemporaries react to the fact that cursive writing has become a lost art?

On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

Last Minute Shopping for Chocolate-Covered Cherries

IMG_1074   My parents’ house was quiet and last minute preps were pretty much finished by 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve when I retreated to the bedroom to reread “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote’s timeless and touching memoir of a childhood Christmas in Alabama. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that beautifully written story.

As tumultuous as Capote’s later life became, “A Christmas Memory” is an enchanting and innocent tale of a seven-year-old boy and his 60-something-year-old distant cousin making fruitcakes and homemade presents in Monroeville in Depression-era south Alabama. I saw Capote read the story live during an appearance at The University of Alabama and it is still a cherished and moving literary memory.

Capote was in his later years – he was only 59 when he died in 1984 – and his various addictions and career disappointments had taken their toll. His legendary bitchiness was definitely on view that night in Tuscaloosa as he read and commented on various passages from his career.

When he read “A Christmas Memory” to end the evening, however, he seemed somehow transformed. The arch bitterness left his voice and one felt like we were seeing a brand new Capote – untouched by the jadedness and later trials of his life. There were many cynics in that audience – I was one of them – and I will venture to guess that most of those in the room were Alabamians who had grown up with the story; it was my first-hand observation that none of us left the room unmoved by the power of that beautifully written memoir told in such an honest and loving voice.

On this Christmas Eve 2014, as I reread the story, I got to the familiar passage in which the narrator lists the things he would like to be financially able to give to his cousin.  “I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries …”

Then it hit me. I have seen no chocolate-covered cherries in my parents’ house this year. My dad loves chocolate-covered cherries at Christmas – the inexpensive kind you find at the discount stores. As long as I can recall, there were always boxes of them at the house, gifts from friends who know about Dad’s passion.

Some of the friends who always supplied the boxes of cherry treats are now too far away for the gift exchange. My sister-in-law and nephew always make chocolate-covered cherry mice around the holidays and this year’s batch had already come and gone closer to Thanksgiving.

For years, I would send Dad a box of the Harry and David chocolate-glazed Bing cherries until my mother confided that he really preferred the cheap cherries you could get at the drugstore.

And this year it was Christmas Eve and there were no chocolate-covered cherries in the house. I looked at the clock – 5:20 – and went in to where Mother was reading.

“Did anybody bring Dad chocolate-covered cherries this year?”

She grimaced and said “I completely forgot.”

I told her I’d be back and headed for the door. She whispered who is going to be open now? and I assured her that there were places open until 6 or later on Christmas Eve.

“Try the drugstore first,” she said.

The drugstore was crowded but near the front door were shelves with chocolate-covered cherries on sale – two boxes for the price of one.

I grabbed two boxes, wished the cashier a Merry Christmas, drove back to the house, and passed the chocolates off to Mother who put them in stockings at the fireplace.

With my Christmas shopping finally done,  the clock struck 6:00 as I went back to the bedroom and finished Capote’s story.