Tag Archives: Tuscaloosa

Gatherings – Part 1: Tuscaloosa and Highway 82


Driving into Tuscaloosa at rush hour on a Friday, I remember why I avoided rush hour traffic during my years in Tuscaloosa. It was easy then, actually, since I didn’t own a car for most of my college years. Today,  I’m running a little late and catching every traffic light between Cottondale and DCH, grateful that I stayed away from McFarland, where the traffic would be even more annoying.

After the April 2011 tornado devastated a large portion of the city, unexpected vistas opened up because the trees were gone. Even twelve years later, the changes to the city since the tornado are shocking, but the tornado is not the problem with the traffic which will likely never get better, especially as the university continues its unprecedented growth and building. As an alumnus of the University of Alabama, I have mixed feelings about all of it.

But it’s a quick trip and I didn’t come to complain. In fact, I came to celebrate Alabama authors at the latest induction of eight writers into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. And that makes it all worth the effort. This induction ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic so it was especially nice to be among a crowd gathering for a special purpose.

The purpose of my attendance was to write about the festivities for Alabama Writers’ Forum. I will share that piece on this site after it’s posted to www.writersforum.com.

I was struck, though, with the stirrings I had as I watched attendees of the Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony walk toward the gathering at the Bryant Conference Center. It has been three years since I was able to attend such gatherings; previous efforts have been tentative at best, with reduced crowds and caution dominant. A string quartet playing Vivaldi’s “Spring” as I entered the pre-dinner reception reinforced that sense of awakening; a violinist wearing a mask was a reminder that the threat is not quite over yet.

Saturday – Hwy 82

With fresh and inspiring memories of the Hall of Fame induction, I’m heading out of Tuscaloosa early to spend the day in Montgomery. To be honest, I think I’m most excited about traveling Highway 82 to get there. The Highway 82 route between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery was a well-worn path for me when I lived in Montgomery and my parents were still in Tuscaloosa. It takes you off the interstates and out of city traffic, past swamps, fields, and prairies through farmland in the southernmost Appalachian foothills. Best of all, it takes you along what I call the “Peach Highway” – a series of farm and peach stands along the two-lane stretch of 82 that goes through Chilton County.

Sandy Chapel Church; Bibb County

In years past, the highway took you through the Bibb County town of Centreville. A new section now bypasses Centreville after crossing the Cahaba River. That stretch was new to me and when I spotted the back of an old wood-framed church off the highway, I took the next road off the highway to check it out. I soon got to the church and saw that it was the Sandy Chapel Church – the church that inspired my series of country-church themed Christmas cards more than twenty years ago. In fact, it was the image on my first Christmas card of the series. I was used to seeing it from the front on the old road, but it also provides a striking glimpse as you travel down the newer highway.

Past Centreville, the highway looks the same, but there is more clear-cutting going on than I like to see (or think about). Abandoned and decaying buildings that always intrigued me are mostly still there, and some have disappeared altogether. They remind me of some of my favorite subjects by the artist William Christenberry, whose Hale County is not far away. Sedate farm houses and their attendant barns and outbuildings appear along the way, as do churches, mobile homes, country stores, and an occasional place to eat.

Harrison Fruit Farms; Chilton County

Peach orchards begin to pop up as the highway nears Chilton County. Peach season is still a couple of months away and an erratic winter may have spoiled parts of it, but there are trees in early bloom and I look forward to my first trip down to Harrison’s Fruit Farms’ roadside stand around Mothers Day.

On this March Day, the farm stand sits serene and quiet at the place where County Road 15 ends at Highway 82. Mr. Jimmie Harrison, the patriarch of Harrison’s Fruit Farms, passed away last fall. Because of my own family emergencies, I wasn’t able to make a “peach run” in summer 2022 but I still have baskets in the trunk from my visits in 2021. I stop by the abandoned stand and leave the baskets to be re-used in the next season. I remember “Mr. Jimmie” and look forward to seeing his family back there soon.

The road finally takes me toward Prattville in Autauga County. But first, I make the quick detour to see if W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden installation is still intact. Mr. Rice was inspired to create a garden of crosses and warnings of damnation (HELL IS HOT HOT HOT) on his property spanning what is otherwise a quiet suburban street. Rice died in 2004 but the rambling, weathered remains of his “garden” are mostly still there. I think about taking pictures, but not this time; I find Mr. Rice’s grim Pentecostal fatalism focusing only on the most frightening parts of scripture to be a little depressing, but I admire his commitment to his message and vision.

On to Montgomery.

Jimmie Harrison’s Fruit Stand; Chilton County

Revisiting a Joni Mitchell Moment

This was fun. Out of the Blue, Lee Hedgepeth, a reporter from Birmingham radio station CBS42, called me a couple of days ago and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed about Joni Mitchell’s 1976 Tuscaloosa concert. He contacted me after reading my post, “Love Song for Joni,” on “Professional Southerner.” Perhaps I come across as a little too much of a “fanboy,” but I always appreciate the opportunity to praise a unique musical icon.

A birthday, a rose and a little white lie: 45 years later, fans remember Joni Mitchell’s only Alabama concert

Minerva at Tuscaloosa

In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.

Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.

When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.

Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.

Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)

But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.

The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.

Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.

O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.

Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.

For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.

What Is Remembered | Look Away

I saw Joan Baez don a grey Confederate soldier’s cap, probably picked up at some local tourist stand, to sing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at a pop-up concert in Mobile. It was April 1976 and the event was one of the two Mobile performances of Bob Dylan’s legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue.”

I skipped a final exam to be there.

The song is poor fictional Virginia farmer Virgil Caine’s lament about his plight at the end of the Civil War. The song, written by a Canadian musician, was not perceived as “racist” at the time. But I doubt that Baez could comfortably perform the song in a cheap Confederate soldier’s cap in 2020; I would have a difficult time applauding it now – with all of the baggage it has come to contain. Even so, it is an undeniably great song and Baez gave an indisputably great performance.

At a time when we are trying to become an anti-racist society, we are challenged to become more conscious of race than at any time in my existence. I learned early on that it is rude to label people based on their race and ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation. Now it is demanded.

White Southerners have often been accused of “living in the past.” I’m afraid we’ve reached a time when the entire nation is living in the past and we’re too paralyzed to move forward.

I taught at an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for the last eighteen years of my career before retiring in May. On occasion, a student would find out I was from Birmingham (mostly – my family moved around a lot) and ask me what part of town. I would answer that we lived in “Green Acres” during my elementary school years and those familiar with the city would jaw-drop and say, “Journey, you’re from the hood!”

Green Acres was not called “the hood” in the ‘60s when I lived there, but times and places change. If I wanted to really blow my students’ minds, I would mention that my dad graduated from Ensley High School.

During those years, Green Acres was an all-white school. It was almost a decade after Brown v. Board and Birmingham city schools were still in the process of integrating. The city had operated its schools on the principle of neighborhood accessibility and, while there were communities of color close to Green Acres, the nearest were in the county – not the city – school system. More diverse parts of the city – especially closer to the city center – were more quickly integrated, but the regrettable “white flight” to the suburbs was gaining steam.

In the interesting time in which we are living, I find myself looking back on my early years in the still much-segregated South. I may have been in the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the “most segregated city in America” in 1963, but, even then, I found the claim somewhat dubious; it was what one might expect from an Atlantan.

I was never oblivious to the struggles going on in my city and around the country. George Wallace was our governor and Bull Connor was wielding his power in Birmingham and forging sores the city has not yet been fully able to erase.

I was in elementary school when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen. That was the same year that Wallace was grandstanding in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to symbolically block the entrance to Black students. It was the time of the Selma marches; the third effort made it beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge and captured the imagination of the world when it reached the Alabama Capitol steps.

I was not “raised” by a Black woman, as some of my friends claim they were, but Black people were ubiquitous wherever I went in the city. Neighborhoods were still considered segregated, but if you walked through the opening in the shrubbery in my Grandparents’ Harbison Fairfield Highlands back yard, you were in a Black community. My grandfather and I would take his dogs for walks through that neighborhood where he seemed to be on a mutual first-name basis with all of the people we met.

My Grandparents’ Journey house was in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works. Their neighborhood was considered segregated, but directly across the street from them were blocks of houses entirely occupied by Black people. The idea of segregation on that street was more of a ludicrous technicality than a reality. Also, my Grandfather Journey was less “neighborly” than Granddaddy Harbison.

Kiddieland was a small amusement park in one corner of the old state fairgrounds in Five Points West. I remember one Saturday at Kiddieland, I got to the coveted first row of the modest  roller coaster. Mother and Dad were sitting the ride out so I had the seat to myself until the ride operator put an African American kid about my age in the seat next to me. I looked over and smiled and said “hey” before the ride took off. My seatmate remained silent until we were about to climb the first rise; then he looked over at me and said, “You soda cracker!” Ruined my ride.

On many days, when I was still pre-school age, Mother and Grandmother Harbison took me shopping. On one of those days, at Goldstein & Cohen, a department store in downtown Ensley, Mother was trying on dresses while I was waiting and hanging out in the women’s department. I got thirsty and took a drink from a water fountain. A sales clerk quickly moved in and scolded me; I had apparently drunk from the “wrong” fountain. My mother, hearing the kerfuffle, rushed out, still buttoning her dress, grabbed my arm, informed the sales clerk that she would decide when her child needed discipline, and took me out.

In those years, my father’s office was in downtown Birmingham, at 20 S. 20th Street. He worked for a national company that manufactured and sold printing equipment. As I quickly learned, everybody – on whichever extreme of the political spectrum – needed printing presses to get their messages out. Dad’s territory included churches and schools, department stores and groceries, political and activist organizations, newspapers, and government offices.

I remember one time driving in the car with Mother to Dad’s office. On a downtown street, we were met with a Civil Rights protest coming toward us from the next block. Mother muttered “March,deftly maneuvered the car down the next block, and we arrived at 20 S. 20th Street without delay.

In the summer months, when school was out, Mother and I would occasionally accompany Dad around central Alabama as he made his calls. I especially remember one trip when Mother was not along – either because she was pregnant with my brother or because she was home with the baby.

Dad’s calls took us to his usual clients – small town printers, newspapers, and churches, schools, colleges, etc. In Sumter County, he called on a print shop housed on a farm. It was a Black-run operation and Dad probably told me its name, but all I remember now is that he referred to it as some sort of “separatist organization.”

Years later, I learned that the earliest incarnations of the Black Panther Party were in Alabama in 1965 with Stokely Carmichael’s leadership of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. I still try to connect the possible dots between that and my Dad’s clients in Sumter County.

The main reason that summer day with my dad stands out is for his final sales call of the day. After leaving Sumter County in late afternoon, we went through Tuscaloosa on the way back to Birmingham. There, in early evening, Dad made one last business call on a business called Imperial Press in a tight two-story building on the main street of downtown Tuscaloosa.

As we pulled into the parking place, Dad said, “It’s called Imperial Press; it’s a front for the Klan.”

Not only was it a front, but we entered the place to be greeted by Bobby Shelton, the “Grand Wizard” (what a silly organization; what pathetic, silly titles and costumes).

I couldn’t wait to get away, but I sat patiently in Shelton’s office while my dad conducted his business, just as he had done at every organization we visited during the course of that day. I looked at framed signed photographs inscribed to their “friend Bobby” by prominent politicians of the time.

Dad was a salesman and all of these diverse characters were his clients. As we drove back to Birmingham, I expressed my pre-teen repugnance and embarrassment at meeting the Klan. Dad asked me how I felt about the Sumter County “separatists” (I still wish I could remember the name of the group) and I told him they seemed “nicer.” “Did they seem ‘nicer’,” he asked rhetorically, “because they were a different race and you didn’t feel embarrassed by them?”

My dad was no Atticus Finch, but he was a good man who often gave me perspectives that I have clung to for life.

In 1973, I was a freshman at Alabama when I watched Gov. Wallace crown Terry Points as the first African American Homecoming Queen at the University. Soon after, Sylvester Jones, my classmate at Birmingham’s Shades Valley High, was elected the first African American Vice President of Alabama’s SGA. In my senior year, Cleophus Thomas, a friend from the University’s Program Council, was elected UA’s first African American SGA President. (I had run against Cleo, a sorority girl, and an umbrella-pilfering frat boy on the platform of abolishing SGA, a principle I still believe in.)

In 1988, shortly after midnight on a June night, the 25th anniversary of Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, my friend Clay and I climbed to the balcony of Foster Auditorium to commemorate the anniversary. It’s odd that none of these events seemed to have happened in as quick succession as they did. It all felt like distant history from June 1963.

Decades later, in a classroom at the HBCU, a student asks me once again where I’m “from.”

“Birmingham,” I answer for the umpteenth time.

Her eyes squint and her mouth wrinkles into a sneer. “You’re not really from Birmingham.”

I start to respond, but realize that she has decided the only way to legitimately be from Birmingham is to be Black and from Birmingham.

A student who knows me leans to her and says, “His dad graduated from Ensley. He’s really from Birmingham.”

I decide to let the whole exchange hang there. But it still bothers me: I’m not sure I truly belong anywhere.

Diane McWhorter, a writer from the privileged Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, in 2001. Her journalistic research and documentation about the Birmingham campaign of the Civil Rights movement are impressive. McWhorter makes the mistake, however, of putting herself and her lily-white upbringing into the narrative by weaving in a shaggy dog story about her father’s conjectural involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (almost certainly a fictional conjecture).

McWhorter leveraged her book into a career of sorts, commenting on race relations in the South whenever someone wants her point of view. She presents herself in Carry Me Home as an ingenuous Mountain Brook girl, somehow oblivious to what’s going on just a few miles over the mountain from her house.

McWhorter is only a few years older than me.

When I read her book, I kept thinking, if you were growing up there and then, How could you not know?

Old Dog, New Tricks … Sprouting

Sometime in the ‘70s, when Harmony Natural Foods opened along the University Boulevard Strip in Tuscaloosa, the store was a radical change from everything else on the Strip. It was close to my apartment and I would occasionally drop in for lunch – a sandwich or a salad. Harmony was really the only place in town to get the particular kinds of natural foods it was serving.

Harmony was an outgrowth of the hippy movement moreso than it was a harbinger of the food movements to come but it has managed to straddle both; it moved from the University Strip to Tuscaloosa’s McFarland commercial drag, changed its name to Manna Grocery and Deli, and is still in operation spanning five decades.

Back when I was a Harmony customer, I would dash across the street to Charles and Co. and grab a Coke before I went to have my “healthy” meal. I wasn’t always in the mood for the juices and herb teas that were the Harmony beverage options.

The food was generally good, but I remember an abundance of alfalfa sprouts on everything. I realized I am not a fan of alfalfa sprouts – they were fine as they were being eaten but had a metallic and lingering aftertaste that was and is unpleasant to me. Finally I started specifying “no sprouts” when I placed my order.

After all of these years, if I am ordering something that I suspect might have alfalfa sprouts, I will ask to have them left off.

Recently, though, while I was strolling through Pepper Place Saturday Market in Birmingham, one of the guys from the Iron City Organics microgreens stall motioned me over. “I want you to try something,” he said, and almost before I could say okay he clipped off a couple of tiny sprouts from a tray and I put them in my mouth.

The fleshy green sprouts popped with a burst of summer that was tangy and refreshing.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Sunflower sprouts,” he replied.

I had to have some and I took them home and used them in salads and as a garnish for various dishes. When I ran out of that first batch, I was anxious to get more.

Last week, when I went to Pepper Place, a visit to Iron City Organics was the absolute priority. There were trays of fresh sprouts still in the dirt and, after sampling, I came home with more sunflower sprouts, added wasabi microgreens to the mix, and am now thinking of all the ways I might use these and all of the other Iron City Organic crop. In addition to the variety of microgreen sprouts, Iron City also has full grown produce – kale, mustard, radishes, etc. – and a fine array from which to choose.

The guys at the stall are so passionate and take such pride in the product they are nurturing and providing that it’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm. They clearly know how to run a business and serve their customers; a search of their online presence backs up that perception.

I have recently become obsessed with accessing fresh watercress, which is hard to find, and now, thanks to the guys at Iron City Organics, I am embarking on a whole new sprouting angle to my menus.

But I’m still avoiding the alfalfa sprouts, thank you. 

The Oasis

I woke up this morning craving a cheeseburger from The Oasis.

If you travel from west to east on University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa you will go through downtown and the heart of the University of Alabama campus. Continuing past Alberta City and the iconic neon sign of the Moon Winx Lodge (which survived the April 2011 tornado despite devastation all around it) you’ll pass through Five Points and a less populated area of Tuscaloosa’s edges. Eventually, University merges with U.S. 11 in Cottondale. Just past that merger point, one might almost miss The Oasis, a ‘50s-era roadhouse on the left.

If you’re in the neighborhood, try not to miss it. I haven’t been there in a long time but the place makes a vivid impression.

The Oasis is the kind of place that would have been referred to as a “beer joint” when I was growing up. It’s in a squat one-story red brick building with double neon zigzags across the top and “OASIS” centered up and left of the glass front door. Pick-up trucks are usually dominant in the front parking lot and motorcycles are often pulled around on the side. A free-standing neon sign tops a pole just to the right of the building. It is topped by the words “THE OASIS” flanked by saguaro cacti and a big neon “BEVERAGES” below. East Tuscaloosa along University Boulevard has long had some great neon.

The small entrance counter and cash register directly in front of you as you come in the door open into a basic dining room to the left with a few booths, tables, and a bar. Of course there was always a great jukebox.  A closed off barroom with a pool table is in the back with its own entrance near the rear of the building. I think I have peeked back there exactly once.

Be warned: Because the Oasis is out of the city limits (I guess) the place is still smoker-friendly and one dines there in a haze of stifling cigarette smoke. I guess it was always a smoke-filled room but I didn’t notice it so much in the days before strict non-smoking regulations. Now it hits you as soon as you open the door. I had recommended the cheeseburger to my parents a few years ago and they went in and immediately went out because of their health problems and the smoke (which I had forgotten to warn them about). The waitress came out and took their order and told them she’d bring it out to the car.

The Oasis has always felt to me like a place where one might go to cheat on a spouse. Maybe it’s the country music playing on the jukebox and the smoky atmosphere. Maybe it’s the clientele. I think it’s a combination of all of the above. Even if the waitress approaching the table doesn’t start off with “What’ll you have, darlin’?” you’ll feel like she did. The wait staff is friendly, experienced, and earthy. They have never suffered fools gladly.

The Oasis cheeseburger seals the deal. It’s a perfect old-style all-beef patty cooked on a flat-top grill with American cheese melted on the top. This is nestled beneath a pillowy top bun with the works – onions, tomato, lettuce, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. Some poll ranked the Oasis cheeseburger as among the top five cheeseburgers in Alabama; I find such rankings annoying but this one got it right by recognizing the Oasis (and I think the winning cheeseburger was Chez Fonfon in Birmingham).  Accompany your Oasis cheeseburger with a generous order of hot crinkle-cut fries. The Oasis was always the kind of place that would wrap a napkin around an ice cold long-neck beer to absorb the cold bottle’s moisture.

I passed The Oasis hundreds of times before I stopped and ate there. In the 1980s a jazz musician friend took me to The Oasis for the first time for lunch. (On that same afternoon, he convinced me how much better my life would be with a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses and I overspent on sunglasses for years after.)

I longed to be a “bad boy” back then but never really had what it took to pull it off. The Oasis, however, instantly spoke to my bad boy instincts and after that first trip I often looked for a good excuse to make the drive east on University.

I was directing a production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1986. Shepard is a favorite of mine and the twisted and longing love story of an emotionally damaged couple in a run-down motel room in the Mojave Desert is a great example of his singular aching vision. One night after a Friday night rehearsal I told Kitty, the actor playing the female lead, that we were going to do some research on her role after the Saturday afternoon rehearsal and that she should dress in character.

On Saturday afternoon Kitty showed up for rehearsal wearing a little too much make-up and with her honey-brown hair dyed jet black. She wore a low-cut red blouse, skin-tight jeans, and spike heels.

“Perfect,” I said. “Where to?” asked Kitty.

After rehearsal, Kitty, the stage manager, and I piled in the car and headed out to The Oasis. It was mostly a male clientele late on a November Saturday afternoon. I started handing Kitty quarters to feed the jukebox. Every eye followed her as she leaned across the jukebox and picked out the most plaintive cryin’ in your beer tracks.

Kitty, who was already a skilled actor, was finding her character with each sip of a cold one and with each quarter in the jukebox. We paid up and headed for the car. As Kitty was getting in the car, a group of women in a pick-up truck slowed down. One of them rolled down the window and yelled “Slut!” at Kitty. The truck and its women sped away, slinging gravel in the wake.

“Well that was fun,” said Kitty with a sly grin. “Where to next?”

We decided to go to Leland Lanes in Alberta City and bowl for a while.

The Chukker Nation

59343_10151206185029021_891945282_n  A girl I sort of dated in college told me that she thought I looked like “the love child of Mick Jagger and Jackson Browne.” This was the ‘70s. She was delusional; I was young and flattered.

I had forgotten the comment (really, I had!) until somebody forwarded this photo to me from Facebook. It was taken (as far as I can figure since I remember the shirt) by photographer John Earl sometime in the very early ‘80s. I am the skinny guy in the down right corner with a lot of attitude. The photo made me gasp since I had forgotten myself as that skinny, that young, and with that hairstyle. But then the Mick and Jackson love child statement came to mind. Or is that guy in that picture maybe “Zoolander-esque”? Or Zoolander-esque-ish?

The picture was taken in the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa fixture for 47 years from 1956 to Halloween 2003. It was a bar. It was a dive. And it was one of the great and legendary watering holes in the world (friends have reported seeing Chukker tee-shirts in Paris). I was born in 1955 so I was a minute older than the Chukker. But here’s the deal: My parents opened a typewriter business on 22nd Avenue in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1957 and their shop was around the corner from the Chukker, new at the time but already a dive. Back then, the Chukker was a lunch spot – a grill if you will – in the daytime and reverted to its bar status at night.

I know my parents would probably rather not admit to this, but I remember going to the Chukker as a young child to pick up coffee in the morning and sandwiches at noontime for Mother and Dad. So my personal memories of the Chukker go back to about 1958. It was a different time and toddlers could freely roam Tuscaloosa city streets. I was – I’ll admit it – too much of a spoiled brat to go to day care back then and my accommodating parents made a sort of nursery/playroom for me in the back of their business.

I had the run of the streets in many ways since the shopowners in the area knew me and would look out for me. My parents still have a small bookcase that I decided I needed back then. I spotted it and my 4-year-old self told Mr. McGraw at the furniture store to put it on my parents’ account. He did. I am pretty sure that my mother’s cedar chest still has a drawing of little me that was drawn by an itinerant artist who set up shop for a while in the Chukker in the ‘50s. And I vividly remember ringing the bell at the Salvation Army booth during the Tuscaloosa JayCee’s Christmas parade with my stuffed Coca-Cola Santa under my arm, making a haul for charity. As a toddler in Tuscaloosa I was a “street kid” in the purest (and most innocent) sense of the term

When the family moved back to Tuscaloosa in 1972, the Chukker was still there. And it was still there when I was an undergraduate in college. It was only after I finished college (the first time) and I was still living in Tuscaloosa that I went with friends back to the Chukker. Back then, it was much like I remembered it, but it was a full-fledged bar and its reputation seemed to change biannually. It was reputed to be, at various times, an “artists’ bar,” a “biker bar,” a “blues bar,” a “bohemian bar,” a “gay bar,” a “lesbian bar,” an “old hippy bar,” a “punk rock bar,” a “redneck bar,” a “writers’ bar” … I could go on.

What it was, though, was an inclusive community that happened to be a bar. One always felt looked after at the Chukker. One always found someone one wanted to talk to and get to know.

My friend Bill and I were at the Chukker when I heard that John Lennon had been killed. That was no small feat since the bar had no phone at that time. I directed my first, and unexpectedly successful, production of Gertrude Stein plays at the Chukker. Bruce Hopper, the owner at that time, asked me if I wanted to do a show in the bar’s performance space. I told him that I did but I couldn’t guarantee an audience for the avant garde plays of Gertrude Stein. He said “do it” and we sold out nightly.

A film student shot a short film of my friend Deb and me walking in a circle in the Chukker courtyard on the day that Andy Warhol died. We walked round and round and talked about Andy and Andy’s death. I never saw the finished product but someone told me, many years later, that they saw it at a screening somewhere. “You’re the guy walking in circles in that Warhol film.” Yes, I guess I am.

My friend Clay would spend hours, it seemed, glued to the Chukker’s Galaga machine. My Galaga attempts were generally over in under a minute. Clay and I played a lot of pool at the Chukker also. My pool skills were unpredictable at best; I chose to refer to them as “Zen-like.” Clay was one of the few people who had the patience to play pool with me; I even won a game on occasion.

An ersatz and quirky art collection was housed at the Chukker – mostly the work of artists who hung out at the place during their Tuscaloosa sojourn. Some was hanging on the walls and some was painted directly on the walls. “The Sistine Chukker,” Tom Bradford’s Michelangelo homage on the bar’s ceiling, was the most legendary piece of the Chukker collection. For many years, I would welcome newcomers to Tuscaloosa with a postcard of the Sistine Chukker.

The great Tuscaloosa-based Celtic group Henri’s Notions was practically the house band at the Chukker for a while. Forecast, The Indigo Girls, The Replacements, Johnny Shines, Richard Thompson, and Sun Ra all played the Chukker, as did any number of local bands trying to be R.E.M. during that band’s heyday. In fact, I took a long time to warm up to R.E.M. because of the English department “R.E.M. wannabe” bands that sprang up in Tuscaloosa at the time. The real R.E.M. itself adjourned to the Chukker after a concert on the University campus, bringing a substantial number of the concert-goers with them, when Michael Stipe announced to the audience that that’s where they were going after the show. I invited Billy Joel to the Chukker after one of his Tuscaloosa concerts; he declined. Jimi Hendrix may or may not have played there and Keith Richards may or may not have played pool there. Abbie Hoffman DID have a beer there because I was there when he did it. There was always a “Chukker Nation Reunion” on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years’s Day.

“Quarter beer night” on Mondays was a longstanding tradition. One could go on the roof of the building next to the place (the building, in fact, where the furniture store where I bought those bookshelves used to be) and watch the cars converge from every direction at 9:00 p.m. on Monday (remember that convergence scene in Field of Dreams?) and watch most of the same cars leave again at 10 when the hour of 25 cent beer was over.

I had not been at the Chukker for many years when I heard it was closing its doors on Halloween 2003. In fact, the closing was reported on CNN. It was ultimately the victim of a Tuscaloosa downtown renewal. There’s a park where the Chukker and my parents’ typewriter shop used to be, and a fountain nearby. It’s a nice enough place, but a little bittersweet if you remember what used to be.

I went down on Halloween 2003 to be a witness. So did many other people. I didn’t stay long that night, and I was disappointed that I arrived just as Henri’s Notions finished their final Chukker set, but the place was packed; it seemed that every time the door opened that night, it contained a face that I had not seen in ages. Truly, people flew from across the country to be present at the Chukker’s closing night. I visited with the guys from Henri’s Notions, Sandra and Michael, Fred and Jennifer, and other people I knew. I didn’t stay long; I didn’t even have a beer. But I was there.

And then I was not there anymore. It was all I could do not to turn around for one last look as I walked out of the Chukker door for the final time. But I didn’t. I just kept walking.