Saturday, July 31, 2010

Home From Home

The final leg of our drive home led us to familiar turf. We planned a last stop in Birmingham, Alabama to visit Johnny Coley.I couldn't make up my mind about this sculpture seen at a gas stop. I'd like to think the good doctor has a sense of humor that might align with my own. Probably not, but I do like his brazenly displayed Barbecue sculpture. After so many miles and days of crossing unknown territory it was pleasant to know exactly where we were going so when Johnny's strategically placed apartment building hove into view we knew where we were.As did the man himself. Johnny took up his role as porter, as he usually does when he sees us arrive with all our impedimenta, and our road trip instantly became a visit, which was a pleasant change.On the road conversation tends to turn rather desultory in our car.
"I need to pee."

"Look at that truck swerve."

"I wonder who lives there."

"Are you hungry?" (Hunger is a relative term that could easily be replaced by "bored" in modern America, land of the superfluous calories).

"Stop at the next gas station."

While visiting Johnny conversations take a more dramatic turn, which is a welcome change after weeks on the road, and we discussed politics, Alabama scandals and Birmingham society drama. About 35 years ago my wife joined her sister in Birmingham after she graduated UC Santa Cruz and considered settling there she liked it so much. She lived with Johnny and others in a mansion they called Kudzu Castle, which still stands, and their friendships from that time 35 years ago remain strong. My wife's ability to meet and keep friends never ceases to amaze me. She ran a battered women's shelter but finally went to Hastings School of Law in her home state of California, and graduated from that venerable San Francisco institution and then passed the California Bar exam first try. She decided to settle in California to work as a public defender until I came along and unsettled her again. I achieved that big time by convincing her to spend two years sailing to Key West. I had long wanted to get out of Santa Cruz but my periodic attempts to settle in Florida had never jelled properly. This time I had high hopes, and in fact she took to Key West like a duck to water and remembers from a distance the stresses of law and the gnarly business of defending the occasionally innocent. Teaching is much more to her taste.
"I could live here," she says of Birmingham. We always keep a Plan B in our hip pockets in case catastrophe strikes and we have to move. Oil spills were on our mind this trip. Johnny would like her around but the lure of island living and all her (numerous) friends in the Lower Keys keep us anchored. Besides they are now promising no oil will ever reach the Keys, so that must be true.Even though our life experiences are completely different Johnny shares my ability to view life through a slightly skewed lense. We talked about another resident of Kudzu Castle, Don Siegelman was one of those early friends who said at the time he wanted to become governor of Alabama. That he did in 1999, to my wife's astonishment and was later prosecuted for corruption, charges that appear to have been politically motivated as Siegelman was under consideration for Vice President as a running mate for Al Gore. The US Supreme Court recently voted to send his case back to the Appeals Court for a review. I've never met the man but one has to imagine that Johnny and my wife took the more sensible career paths. Who needs Karl Rove gunning for them? So stopping in Birmingham is a very good thing especially for my wife who gets to feed her nostalgia (I get to visit the Barber Motorcycle Museum of which more tomorrow). For Cheyenne too this was a good stop. I think she was craving the familiar after three weeks of constant change.Why she took it into her head to spend the night in Johnny's closet I couldn't say, but when I woke up the next morning there she was. Perhaps she knew that we had another 900 miles to go and she was sending a signal that she wasn't ready.We had dinner in a fabulous Greek restaurant in the nearby town of Bessemer whose name reminded me of nothing so much as a a Spanish kiss (besame means "kiss me."). The reality is that Bessemer has apparently gone downhill and we were greeted at the Bright Star restaurant by an armed guard in the lobby. I left my camera at home as I wanted a night off after three weeks and 1400 pictures of absolutely everything so now that i have had plenty of time to regret that choice here is a picture off Bright Star's website of their fabulous 1914 dining room.We drank wine and ate lemon fish and corn bread sticks and evening had a couple of puddings worthy of photography. The baklava cheese cake was extraordinary, slices from a roll of baklava pastry with a creamy custard inside. Cheyenne napped outside in the car in the cool of the evening guarding the vehicle from all local evil doers. The next day we breakfasted with Johnny and his 88 year old mother Tippy (who I prefer to think of as Zippy given her mobility) and he went to work at the library and we went home to do our bit to keep 21st century America rolling.Cheyenne would have stayed put, as would we. There was no doubt we were all a bit tired.Normally we can drive from Birmingham to our house in 16 hours. We left the tree shaded street in front of Johnny's home determined to do just that, one more time.Almost immediately we faltered along the enticing shoulder of Highway 82, past Eufaula, in the Peach State."Turn Back!" my wife ordered in no uncertain terms as the fruit stand flashed by. I pulled a fast U-turn. Usually we indulge in spicy boiled peanuts, but this time my wife had other plans. She had set her sights considerably higher. I think one reason my wife has and keeps so many friends is her constant search for the welcome home gift. Our See Food diet was drawing to a close and I was pretty sure this stuff wasn't on the menu for me.We did try these things but I have to say the bacon flavor was weak and the puffs were rather too puffy. We failed to make a dent in the bag. Considering all those chemicals you'd think they would have had some zing. I retired to the loo while my wife shopped. Unfortunately there was a real toilet in there not just a hole in the ground. And if the word "paw" on the rustic key holder should confuse the tourist (do they really need a lock on the loo in this lonely place? Paranoiacs...) they have helpfully translated it into proper English ("MAN") it to avoid embarrassment. I don't think this translates really well into modern gutter American. My colleague Noel, the most cheerful gay man I know looked startled for a minute then couldn't stop chortling. "They've got that right," was his comment. This was why we got no peanuts, my wife was looking for calories elsewhere, and it was well worth the stop.I suspect these fields were peanuts (ground nuts in British/English) though the plants looked vaguely like beans. Cheyenne was not impressed, she didn't even deign to pee on them.
Eventually we saw the word Florida alongside Interstate 75. We were 650 miles from home.
There are those who argue North Florida is more akin to South Georgia and so they put out large flags representing the losing side to drive the point home. That and the Big Oil sign made a juxtaposition Johnny and I could have discussed for hours.
Spending one last night on the road was a mistake though La Quinta in Ocala was very comfortable.The next day was Saturday and by 1pm when we reached the Overseas Highway half of Miami had made the same choice and traffic was s-l-o-w into the Keys. I used some local knowledge to get past the worst of it on County Road 905, but still I called the office to warn them I might not be at my desk at 6pm...We dawdled along at 40 mile per hour with bursts to 30mph and had I not been anxious about wrecking my perfect attendance I might have enjoyed the drive a lot more. The Channel Five bridge rising in the back ground made the perfect back drop to these bridge anglers.It was good to see turquoise waters again. Matecumbe Key.The deeper into the keys we got, the easier the driving became as traffic thinned out. The home stretch- the familiar Seven Mile Bridge. And my garden had been producing while I was gone.How about that? Lovely to be home.