Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bye Bye Birmingham

It's time to head back to Key West, by-passing the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, because I have spent the past three days discussing it's lusciousness. This is a Triumph equipped with tachometer, unlike my low rent model, and it was on display permanently in the museum, unlike mine which is on the road most days. I hadn't ridden mine for a week. It was time to get home.But first we say goodbye in passing to Vulcan, and we find out what exactly Birmingham's famous bean pie tastes like once you get the wrapper off:
...as we have lunch at the best known soul food café:
...and check out the Civil Rights Museum. Birmingham was founded in 1871 and named after the British city where coal and steel powered an industrial surge in the 19th century. So fast did the city grow they called it The Magic City, from 3,000 people in 1880 to a quarter million today. Three quarters of the population is black and attempts at desegregation here as elsewhere persuaded whites to run to the suburbs after the Civil Rights changes of the 1960s. Even today I find Birmingham segregated and blacks on the street look away when a white dude and his Labrador stump by (even when I wasn't wearing pink crocs). I remarked on this to Johnny Coley who sniffed rather tartly in reply:"Oh, you mean like every other US city?" I conceded he had a point but Birmingham has it's own history. Not easily overcome by boy racers and their multi racial motorcycles: As they rode the streets wailing loudly from the barely muffled four cylinder an old black man humping grocery bags looked at them and sniffed" Now why they do that?" "Because they're young" I said in answer to his rhetorical question, remembering my own callow youth. He was unimpressed by my remark as were the kids by my interest. Cheyenne was unimpressed by the 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of the bombing on September 15th, 1963, that killed four children and effectively helped turn the tide against the extremism of the segregationists. The Civil Rights Museum on Kelly Ingram Park is right next to the Church and welcomes neither dogs nor photographers, which meant Cheyenne spent the duration of our visit snoozing in the car, and my camera spent the tour in my pocket which is a shame because the museum is remarkable.
The park illustrates how close to the business district the church is and the bombing was not an act of violence on the periphery of the city.
The Civil Rights Museum charges $15 to visit ($12 for AAA members) and is a spectacularly refined and beautifully laid out monument to cruelties past. I snuck some pictures from the introductory film: Birmingham became known as Bombingham thanks to the violence of the times which are remembered for the 16th Street Church attack but in fact the city was riddled with violence. The black community embraced peaceful protest as their response.
These acts of public cruelty happened not so long ago. A former girlfriend told me stories of her memories of growing up in Jim Crow Florida. And the screen rolled up and in we went. One British tourist ignored the no photography sign but a guard appeared from nowhere to put him in his place. I figured we were under surveillance.
Afterwards we went to the soul food joint and ordered a slice of bean pie and some macaroni and cheese. The mac and cheese came with a thick slice of cheddar baked on top which was unusual for me. The bean pie was sweet which was a shock as we had expected something savory. We shared our slice for dessert.
With time drawing in on us we planned to eat Indian for dinner and leave very early in the morning. I walked Cheyenne through the neighborhood of the historic district, filled with brick and white people in splendid homes.
Not my dog who is a whore and friend to everyone.
I got my fill of mysterious alleys too which was fun. We walked at random in the cool of 70 degree (19C) afternoons by following Cheyenne's nose and getting lost in the hills among the mansions. I caught glimpses of Johnny Coley's vast apartment complex dominating the Highland Avenue skyline:
Lawn mowing as a social event.
"No Parking In Alley." They could have stolen the signs from Key West.
Birmingham is Alabama's most populous city and I suppose one can blame the University Campus for producing a whole bunch of leftist attitude. I wanted one of these for myself. There were lots of "For Rent" signs everywhere.
And plenty of impressive homes, leftovers overs from the era of affluence and industry.
I met these guys with their new-to-them Vespa 150 out for their first ride. The guy in the red helmet (Alabama is a helmet law state) said he rode it once round the block when he bought it but they were setting off for their first ride two up. When I said I owned an ET4 he said"What's that?" Clearly a scooter novice. I wished them well. Two gay men on a bright scarlet scooter in the middle of Alabama. The times they really are a-changing. I guess I looked pretty gay myself. Oh well.Where were you? My wife asked after we got back from a quick two hour ramble one day.
Checking out our next home, I said. We could fit four of our Ramrod Key house in here. Heating bills must be hell.
And lest we figure we are far from the ocean (which Birmingham is) there was this reminder:
On our evening stroll to an Indian dinner we passed the scooter club out en masse. Very gay I'm sure (sniff!).
And there was Vulcan, god of the forge, presiding over the city. I am sorry I missed the chance of a visit this year as the view by day or night is excellent. We said our goodbyes to Johnny Coley that night promising ourselves an extra early start, which turned out to be pure bollocks and Johnny came back to his apartment after a night with a friend to find us staring blearily out at the world from his terrace.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in astonishment as he stepped into his apartment.
"Do you remember that great breakfast place we went to last time?" my wife asked. Of course he did.
French toast grits, fruit, eggs Benedict and lots of excellent coffee. Then we loaded up on yuppie food, and they weren't kidding when they said they had Alabama's best wine prices so we threw a mixed case of that in the trunk of the long suffering Maxima. My wife had difficulty pulling me away from the display case of my favorite food. We got some fried chicken for a picnic lunch and left Johnny and Birmingham at 11am on a Thursday for the 916 mile drive home. A great time with Johnny Coley in Birmingham. We must do this again. And again.
Federal Highway 82 from Montgomery to I-75 via Eufaula. This is how I remember it, bucolic and Southern with lots of roadside stands in the summer, filled with spicy green beans, boiled peanuts and peaches. Eufaula, mansions, oak trees and shady streets alongside the river.
But they are turning the highway into a four lane expressway so we will have to find another back road next time. From here on out it was four lanes all the way home where we arrived at 4am Friday after seeing not too much of interest all the way down the Turnpike.
And so to bed in preparation for a return to work and the daily hum drum of life in the Keys. I think Birmingham may have replaced Austin as my back up city if we ever decide we can no longer live in the Keys. I hope that day never comes, though rising tides spare no low lying islands anywhere.

My other blog is found here with more words and fewer pictures:
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