Driving into Alabama is nothing short of gorgeous, and after Mississippi, we feel like we can breathe again. We are overcome with how kind and gentle the rolling hills and forests appear in the golden light, the Greatest Hits of Johnny Cash playing four times in a row. There are crystalline pools of water every 10 minutes or so embedded into the hills, and I can’t tell if they are manmade or just some Alabamian miracle. Of course, forty minutes in, on play number three, we see a tattered Confederate flag and remember we are still in the South. Borders don’t contain that.
But, Birmingham! For us, this time around, it’s a personal experience. It’s two cats on the screen porch, looking but not getting up for us. It’s a house full of food and figurines, light switches where you aren’t expecting them. It’s a woman in tulle and costume earrings who declares she’s “FREAKIN’ out,” but gives you a hug like you’re the most important thing in the world before running off to her gig as June Carter.
It’s the vibrancy, intensity, and humor of our hosts, who usher us along with them for the duration of our 24 hour stay, we scoot and stumble eagerly along behind them, rapt. They are everything we want to be – scrappy, ambitious, fun, creative, energetic, political. We spend hours swapping stories about projects. They tell us Alabama is still peculiar and particular, in a way the rest of the globalizing world is sheering out. We see visions of idiosyncrasy flash before our eyes – the promise of being able to do the things that aren’t trendy or necessarily part of a calculated conversation.
All this in a neighborhood with signs in the grass reading “Straight Edge Lawn Services.”
It’s a dive where we park under a freeway and everyone is a regular, slinging curse words as an act of love and exuberance. It’s a Johnny Cash cover band in boleros and suits playing a stage backed by the American flag, who we have to admit are on fire. We proudly wield our bright yellow club memberships, even though we stick out like sore thumbs at an event which it turns out is a fiftieth birthday party with homemade food in the back of the dimly lit room, behind the pool tables, and a smoking bench out front, draped with people in leather, plaid, and denim. It’s the “Support Trans Youth” sticker unexpectedly in the bathroom.
It’s no fucks given, and a tireless counterculture that will get minimal sleep to keep staging direct actions and get everyone fed. It’s a French cafe with exquisite and unpretentious food. We are treated like royalty, or maybe just family, but treated that way even though we don’t feel we’ve earned it. We keep wondering what we’ve done to be treated so well, as they dump bags of pastries and bread into my arms, and scurry back into the kitchen of a restaurant to personally make my lunch, and stand in the street to stop traffic as we drive away, late to our next destination.
It’s stories of love translated into time spent racing around thrift stores to make a restaurant out of a new-build downtown. It’s a prayer over a shopping cart and an improvised price tag. It’s a van and a defunct Mexican restaurant, tangible spaces to dream.
It’s the big hospitals downtown and it’s the dusty costume boxes fifteen minutes away, and it’s big and flawed and beautiful. Dead armadillos line the highways as we leave, and we learn that if your defense is to stand stock still you will always be hit head-on. So we drive with our minds a hundred miles ahead of us, some part of us receding in the mirrors behind.
Alabama seems to us a promise of something that might be a total fallacy. But maybe our imaginings of a place where we don’t always have to be seen and see others who seem so clearly cooler and better and bolder than us, maybe it is real. It doesn’t seem that way now, 20 days later. But maybe.